Conspiracy theories are spreading faster than the virus itself, and potentially causing more damage


The World Health Organisation already has a word for this other terrible, global, viral spread of disinformation, an “infodemic”. And it is travelling faster than the pandemic itself — waves of blatantly false information that are causing panic.

In the United Kingdom, people have burnt some 20 base network stations, causing untold damage and angry disbelief from the networks, because of unsubstantiated rumours that 5G has caused the coronavirus.

This spectacularly stupid and self-defeating vandalism – which could be just as easily used to describe the self-inflicted economic woes of Brexit – means crippling the very critical infrastructure most of those vandals are using for internet access to read those absurd conspiracy theories.

Even more painfully ironically, most of those towers don’t have 5G equipment on them yet. It’s like Brexit 2.0.

There is obviously no scientific proof to these wild conspiracy theories about 5G. But that doesn’t stop the scaremongers, or, as we like to call them, liars.

I can never understand why people do this kind of crazy Alex Jones (of the notorious conspiracy theory website InfoWars) thing. Or Cape Town’s craziest person, Stephen Birch, whose Facebook video claiming coronavirus testing kits were already infected saw him take pole position for sheer lunacy. At least he got his day in court, very swiftly. If only that was the punishment all disseminators of such disinformation faced all the time.

I sometimes fear the worst, which is that people actually believe this patent drivel. They must be the people who get conned in 419 scams or click on the click-bait adverts with improbable headlines, promising fortunes or just distraction.

Last week also saw another controversial conspiracy theory with a South African connection. The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, who has been doing his show from his New York home for the past few weeks, interviewed Bill Gates. The Microsoft founder is now the world’s biggest philanthropist and has dedicated his massive wealth and enormous brain to solving the world’s most pressing health problems. From the world’s richest man to the world’s most caring man.

Despite not discussing vaccines, the conspiracy nuts on Twitter managed to get their fictitious fable that vaccines were going to be tested in Africa going viral. When President Cyril Ramaphosa tweeted a link to the interview (which was actually fascinating and worth watching), the nutters were in full meltdown.

To counter the 5G conspiracy theories, YouTube is blocking them. One can only wish they have the same vigour for anti-vaxxing videos too.

WhatsApp is also limiting the number of times a message can be forwarded to five, in an effort to halt the spread of disinformation. Sadly, that is WhatsApp’s biggest flaw. It is used widely for the spread of conspiracy theories, fake videos and xenophobia – and has been used in contentious political campaigns the world over.

At least one thing positive that is spreading through the vast information-sharing network that is the internet are the many 3D-printed and home-made faceplates and masks. From used T-shirts and scrubs for tie-less variety masks to Wits engineering students’ laser cutting faceplates, and fashion house sewing masks from shweshwe, the usefulness of sharing information at least balances out the blackness.


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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