Omicron highlights the global information pandemic

By Aidan White

The Omicron variant of coronavirus which is making headlines around the world signals a new offensive in the battle to counter the disinformation and conspiracy theories which have plagued news coverage of the pandemic for almost two years.

The frontline for this latest confrontation between reliable journalism and truth-telling science against the half-baked claims of online eccentrics is South Africa where the Omicron mutation was first revealed. 

Australian national television last month exposed an evangelical minister in South Africa called Stephen Smith who travels across the country preaching to factory workers and rural farmers. He urges them not just to avoid Covid vaccines but also not to get tested.

He does this, he told the broadcaster, because he believes that powerful people planned the pandemic “as an opportunity to get richer”. He advises people infected by the disease to self-medicate with prayer and also a mix of ginger, lemon juice, garlic, and aspirin, a remedy that he picked up “researching the internet”.

The challenge facing journalists covering the story is not just filling the vacuum caused by the delay in hard information as scientists scramble to understand the nature of this new threat, it is in maintaining support for public health strategies in the face of such weird and bizarre theories.

The problem is that many coronavirus-exhausted people are fearful and cautious and can be taken in by the abundance of crackpot thinking that is circulating.

This anxiety has already had an impact. In South Africa – Africa’s most developed economy – the vaccination rate is reported to be just 24 percent of the population, way ahead of the rest of Africa, but far lower than the global rate of 42 percent.

The Omicron crisis illustrates the uncomfortable truth that fact-based news reporting and scientific know-how is no match for rampant disinformation. Recent research in the United States shows that there is a tendency to disbelief of proven scientific truths, even in the most developed societies.

Many people may have thought that the vaccine problem in South Africa and other parts of Africa and the global south is solely tied to lack of availability and the morally-questionable vaccine hoarding by America, European other developed nations.

And, indeed, according to the World Health Organisation Africa faces a shortfall of almost 500 million doses of vaccination as the continent tops 8 million Covid cases a week. Africa has so far been able to fully vaccinate 3.6% of its people. Richer countries have administered 48 times more doses per person than low-income nations. 

Nevertheless, South Africa’s crisis has not been one of supply, it is one African country that has received enough vaccine, the problem is also a climate of distrust of government and news media within the public at large which has its roots in the history of apartheid and racial conflict.

And the country is not new to controversy at times of medical emergency. More than 20 years ago it was at the centre of an international storm during another pandemic when the then-president Thabo Mbeki took up a conspiracy theory that denied the science about the nature of AIDS.

Now, in the shadow of Omicron, public cynicism over official policy has increased with viral misinformation on the internet spreading false claims about vaccines and promoting bogus cures, but this is not all home-grown.

According to Eve Fairbanks, an America freelance, quoted by the Philadelphia Inquirer, much of the viral disinformation plaguing South Africa comes from America and Britain via social networks.

This combination of bad information and deep government distrust has had a devastating impact on South Africa’s vaccination campaign and shows that anti-government, anti-science movements are polluting the information space across the world.

All of this highlights the major challenge for news media to accurately communicate the rapidly evolving science to counter false and ambiguous information spreading quickly, whether inadvertently or deliberately, through social media, polarised news sources and other outlets.

Because there is a lot we still don't know about the Omicron variant, and scientists are scrambling to understand how to combat it, there's silence and a vacuum in which conspiracy theories can flourish.

There's no need to panic and media have to wait for science to come up with answers, but in the meantime, journalists have tools available to keep their communities safe and particularly to guard against disinformation from social media that may try to fill the information gap.

In the time of Omicron a mix of ignorance and disinformation can add to public alarm. Journalists can provide a layer of context and background that reduces the risk of panic.

Building trust with the public is the task that faces all journalists, but news media have to ensure that in times of Covid uncertainty this is the first priority. Here are some simple tips:

Be transparent: use trusted and expert sources of information. Only in exceptional cases – perhaps of official whistle-blowing – might it be necessary to resort to anonymous sources;

Understand the science: it is essential for journalists – and not just those covering science or health – to understand the context of the crisis and the basics of what the virus is;

Debunk conspiracy theories: Don’t ignore them, but take the time to expose their origins and counter them with fact-based information;

Demand access to information: The pandemic has exposed how important it is for the right of access to information to be respected and for accurate and reliable public information to be freely available for decision-making by both governments and citizens.

Above all, journalists need to avoid a rush to publish. Ethical journalism requires reflection and time to think. Journalists have to first be right and be credible.

We can’t engage in thumb-twiddling but we need to recognise, as they are finding in South Africa and elsewhere, that this is an information pandemic crisis as well as a health emergency. 

Aidan White is honorary advisor to the Fetisov Journalism Awards and is President of the Ethical Journalism Network