New centre tracks COVID-19 social fracture

28 April 2020 | Story Ambre Nicolson. Photo memyselfaneye, Pixabay Read time 10 min.
A UCT project will use social media analytics and advocacy to combat the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus.
A UCT project will use social media analytics and advocacy to combat the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus.

The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change, incubated by the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Business, has launched a six-month project that will use social media analytics and advocacy to combat the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus in South Africa and beyond.

Associate Professor Camaren Peter and Stuart Jones both have experience in tracking the viral spread of information. Now, just two months after launching the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change, they and their team are embarking on a ZAR6-million project to combat the spread of fake news about an actual virus: COVID-19.

An antidote to misinformation

Over the next six months, the team of 26 – among them psychologists, criminologists and sustainability experts – plan to use social media analytics to track and counter the spread of fake news and polarising rhetoric about COVID-19 in South Africa and other parts of Africa, as well as monitor related incidences of social unrest and collective violence.

These findings will be publicly available as well as shared with government in the form of daily, weekly and thematic reports.

 

“The centre officially opened its doors two months ago. Little did we know that our first order of business would be to tackle misinformation about a global pandemic.”

The team is also working on a predictive model that will help to identify likely hotpots of collective violence in the coming months. They hope to encourage healthy online dialogue by empowering and amplifying the voices of active citizens whose values align with the centre’s aims of encouraging tolerance and social cohesion.

Peter, who trained as a physicist, is an expert in sustainability and complexity theory. He met Jones in 2017 after he noted with concern how quickly disinformation campaigns (such as the one orchestrated by Bell Pottinger) spread fake news online. This spurred Peter to formally establish the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change as a non-profit organisation.

Jones has owned and run the marketing research company Vibrand for the past 15 years, but more recently has developed an interest in social research using social media analytics. In 2016, he co-founded the Citizen Dialogue Centre, which aims to use social media to unite communities and foster healthy online dialogue.

In 2017, Jones and Peter, with support from the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership at the UCT Graduate School of Business, teamed up and merged efforts under the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change.

“The centre officially opened its doors two months ago. Little did we know that our first order of business would be to tackle misinformation about a global pandemic,” says Jones.

The core mission of the centre is to build healthy online communities by countering online polarisation, divisive rhetoric and narrative manipulation. As Peter explains, the online realm is currently flooded with examples of such fake news related to COVID-19.

 

“Our long-term goal is to bring about healthy conversations in the online realm so that we can have healthier politics in real life.”

“For example: on the first day of lockdown there was a fake document that did the rounds that claimed that the government would only provide financial aid for South African businesses, which turned out to be a deliberate attempt to sow division,” he says.

“To date the government has been doing a good job of countering fake news, but it has quickly become clear that the major issues coming to the fore are ones of social fracture around lockdown and perceptions of privilege versus poverty in what lockdown means to different economic classes in South Africa.”

Identifying emerging narratives

Jones explains that there are two broad areas in which the centre works: analysis and advocacy.

“The analysis component of our work includes using social media analytics to monitor trends in social cohesion or specific topics, such as gender-based violence in lockdown,” he says. “To create reports, we use Brandwatch, a cutting-edge social intelligence platform that monitors all public social media, including Twitter, public profiles on Instagram and chat groups and forums, including Reddit.

“We are also in the process of building a predictive model that tracks the use of specific terms on social media and uses thresholds to predict the likelihood of outbreaks of collective violence. One way in which we do this is to recruit interested citizens on WhatsApp groups who then monitor hate speech in their areas. We hope to have this predictive model ready in the next month.”

In Peter’s opinion, there is great value in sharing these analyses with government and civil society organisations as a way of better understanding the drivers of dissatisfaction that lead to polarisation and public unrest.

“Even without getting into the activism side of things, just the analytics are very useful,” he explains.

“The COVID-19 crisis in South Africa may lead to several semi-lockdowns, in which case a better understanding of how people are reacting provides invaluable insights for both public officials as well as private-sector actors who can provide support.”

 

“We will be identifying protagonists who are value-aligned with us and offering to stand beside them in the work they are already doing.”

When it comes to the advocacy and activism component of the centre’s work, Jones explains that the research methodologies they use can identify both the protagonists and antagonists participating in debates online.

“We will be identifying protagonists who are value-aligned with us and offering to stand beside them in the work they are already doing. We want to amplify those voices as a way of encouraging healthy dialogue, even amongst people who may disagree.”

Active citizenship and healthy dialogue

But this is just one part of a much broader vision, according to Peter.

“We recognise that the issue of mis- and disinformation and fake news is a global problem being driven by both internal and external actors who are exerting asymmetric power over the politics of different countries.

“As a non-profit organisation, our long-term goal is to bring about healthy conversations in the online realm so that we can have healthier politics in real life. We want to create platforms for people to organise around and methodologies that can be used for analysis. We also want to make this all open source and share it with similar groups around the world so that they can open centres in their own political spheres.

“Our big hairy audacious goal is to help create a global network of engaged citizens who are actively resisting divisive influences.”

In the meantime, Jones believes the COVID-19 crisis may lead to both beneficial and destructive narratives.

“Whatever the case, we want to be right there analysing and reporting on them and encouraging active citizens on social media to participate in the generation of these narratives so that something positive comes out of this.

“I think there is the opportunity in this current crisis to bring people together or push them further away. The hope is that this will bring humanity together, which means we would also be better poised to deal with other global problems, such as climate change.”


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