The Time Traveler: Criminalizing fake news is not the way

Hugh Ellis

It seems that Government may criminalize the spreading of fake news on the Coronavirus pandemic, during the current state of emergency.

In terms of regulations published in the Government Gazette, it is now (at least technically) a criminal offense to publish a statement, including on social media, that is intended to deceive people about the Covid-19 status of someone or about measures intended to combat, prevent and suppress the disease. Offenders may be fined N$2000 or face six months imprisonment.

Readers of this column will know I despise fake news, and have little time for those who spread fakes online without even basic fact-checks.

But criminalization is not the way. It is hard to achieve in practice. It achieves less than public education would – education costing a fraction of the money. It would create an atmosphere of fear and mistrust, in which correct information put out by health authorities would automatically be viewed with suspicion.

One can understand that falsely claiming that another person has the Covid-19 virus should be an offense. That is clear. But surely that can be dealt with through existing defamation and privacy and crimen injuria laws?

The rest of the regulation just doesn’t seem to get to the root of the problem, and I fear no criminal law could. Most Namibians posting fake news about the Coronavirus are not intentionally sharing false information; they’re passionately convinced it’s true. And it is easy to be fooled.

When I heard that the President of the United States had argued that injecting yourself with disinfectant was a possible cure for Covid-19, I said, ‘No, this must be a fake’. But there he was, His Excellency Donald Trump himself, at a Press Conference, in front of TV cameras, implying that ingesting 1-part-Dettol-plus-5-parts-water would somehow make you healthy.

In this kind of atmosphere, it seems almost harsh for the law to punish the most gullible – rather, compassion is required.

(From now on, by the way, the only Covid-19 information from the US that I’m trusting is from Big Bird. The kids’ portion of CNN, which hosts ‘The ABCs of Covid-19’, featuring the characters from Sesame Street, is the most wholesome, least hysteria-inducing TV that I’ve seen in a while.)

Presumably, anti-fake-news policing would follow the pattern of Namibian (and South African) defamation law. A WhatsApp group admin, I guess, would have to show the police or a court that (a) he or she took reasonable steps to verify the information that was shared on the group, and (b) sharing the information was necessary ‘in the public interest’.

That business is complex enough for defamation lawyers to be paid literally thousands of dollars a day to do. It seems a big burden to place on overstretched police constables and magistrates’ courts.

Alternatively, if you set up specialized agencies to do the policing, how much would that all cost? The Chinese literally spend billions to police their citizens’ use of the Internet, and still, information the authorities consider unacceptable – including misinformation on Covid-19 – gets though.

Here are some better ideas. Use the emergency regulations to ensure that every Internet service provider puts reliable information about the virus at the top of their home page and distributes it through email and text messaging. Fund and publicize civil-society-based fact-checking organizations.

Hold media literacy seminars (virtual or in-person) in every community and in every language. Make an understanding of how search engines like Google work (the top result on Google is not necessarily the most accurate page, only the most popular) part of the elementary school curriculum.

Have you noticed, when information is seen as being ‘banned’ or ‘subversive’, people tend to believe and share it a lot more? The same would be true of ‘banned’ fake Covid-19 news.

Conversely, were the Government to share Covid-19 information on WhatsApp, without the polish of a news bulletin, and maybe even with an intro worded something like, ‘What you’re not supposed to know’, I bet most people would believe it without question.

Human nature is weird like that. But often it’s best to work with the way people process and understand information, than to force yourself against it.

Hugh Ellis is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The view expressed here are personal views. Read his blog at

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