Disinformation occurs when false information is sent with an intention to deceive, while misinformation occurs when false information is sent without an intention to deceive.
This commentary notes that tardy official communication of policy promotes disinformation and misinformation. Further disinformation can arise from a lack of opportunities for public participation in policymaking. Resolving these problems in tackling COVID-19 information pathologies in this information age requires early communication by governments and the provision of quick and clear channels for legitimate public participation in policymaking.
Four incidents from Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 response illustrate disinformation and misinformation driven by shortcomings in the policy communication and participation scheme. The background to these incidents included widespread panic over a suspected positive COVID-19 case in mid-February 2020; the person eventually tested negative. Neighboring South Africa had also confirmed its first positive COVID-19 case at the beginning of March 2020 and was announcing exponentially rising cases and the onset of local transmission throughout early-mid March 2020.
The four incidents are as follows.
Some days before 16 March 2020, a message relating to CIMAS’ role in combating COVID-19 began circulating on WhatsApp. CIMAS, a private entity, is the dominant medical aid provider in Zimbabwe. The message stated that anyone who suspected that they may be COVID-19 positive should call CIMAS’ emergency number and they would get an ambulance to take them to hospital. Further that CIMAS would disinfect their homes. The message stated that CIMAS had been funded by the United Nations to make these services available for free. On 16 March 2020, CIMAS issued an open letter refuting this and stating that the only correct procedure when COVID-19 is suspected is to follow the guidelines outlined by the Ministry of Health and Child Care. On 20 March 2020, a Ministry of Health and Child Care toll-free hotline was established and those who suspected they may have COVID-19 were directed to call. The question of funding for an ambulance or home disinfection has not been addressed.
On or just before 17 March 2020, a press statement emerged which purported to emanate from the University of Zimbabwe, a public university which is the country’s flagship tertiary education institution. The press statement asserted that the university would be closed from the 19th of March 2020 because a student and a faculty member had tested positive for COVID-19. On 17 March 2020, the university issued a statement advising that this press statement did not originate from them. Two days later, the president announced that all educational institutions would close on 24 March 2020.
As a measure to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, the government of Zimbabwe imposed a three-week lockdown period running from 30 March 2020 to 19 April 2020. A press statement dated 10 April 2020 emerged on WhatsApp purportedly emanating from the president. The statement asserted that the ongoing three-week lockdown had been extended by fourteen days. The president declared that he had issued no such statement. The question of whether the lockdown would be extended remained unanswered until the last day of the initial lockdown period. On Sunday 19 April 2020, after 4 pm, the president announced that the lockdown would be extended by fourteen days.
Finally, a press statement purportedly emanating from the president and dated 07 April 2020 appeared on WhatsApp. It stated that rent payments would be suspended during the lockdown period. The government disavowed the statement on that day and noted that government had discussed and rejected that option, a detail that had not been publicly communicated prior to this. One week into the two-week extension – with one week left of an aggregate five-week period, the government announced that there would be a rent and mortgage payment deferral for the entire lockdown period.
The production and initial circulation of the statements amounted to disinformation.
In all four cases, the information traveled quickly through WhatsApp. While internet services are expensive in Zimbabwe, data bundles limited to WhatsApp are relatively affordable.
In all of these cases, the government was silent for a long time on matters in which the public was entitled to expect the government to set forth a position. Disinformation filled the information void created by such silence. The disinformation elicited policy clarity from authorities, even if through denials. Significantly, no attempts at disinformation controverting the authorities’ position – once one was given – have been reported in any of these matters. Information deficiency enabled disinformation to spread through well-meaning misinformation. Early clarity on the government’s position could have curbed the disinformation as the government response did curb the misinformation.
It is notable that, to the extent that the government was directly implicated, it ultimately took measures similar to those suggested by the disinformation. Thus, disinformation may also have filled a perceived participation gap. There was little public inclusiveness in the COVID-19 response. Public health experts did not play a publicly active role; the COVID-19 taskforce is composed entirely of government ministers, which has led to the view that politicians rather than scientists lead the COVID-19 response. In fast-moving circumstances where it was unclear how government was deciding issues arising in the COVID-19 response, disinformation may have sought to bring to government’s attention particular opinions on those issues.
The above situations reflect a variant of disinformation which amounts to a call – and associated misinformation which arises from the need – for early communication by governments of policy information of importance to decision-making by members of the public during crises. The disinformation may also be indicative of a desire for better participation channels during crises. Disinformation is often perceived as being motivated by a desire to harm for personal profit, for political gain or out of malice. The cases above indicate that disinformation sometimes breaks from that mold. This matters when crafting solutions to information pathologies.
Parity of reasoning suggests that disinformation and misinformation could also arise from ambiguity in authorities’ communication. Disinformation here is driven by a desire for clarity on authorities’ position, while misinformation increases because people are more likely to believe alternative information sources when they cannot trust official sources.
In the cases above, authorities rejected the statements. The day after extending the lockdown by fourteen days, the government arrested the alleged source of the lockdown extension rumor and charged him with distributing false news, an offence for which the statutory maximum sentence is twenty years imprisonment.
With disinformation motivated by information and participation shortcomings, criminal proceedings are an inappropriate response. Creating phony statements was undoubtedly misguided, but the key solution to that problem is early, clear information with provision for legitimate participation in policymaking.
Zvikomborero Chadambuka is a Ph.D. student on the Institutions, Economics & Law program at the University of Turin and a visiting researcher at Cornell Law School.