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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


SENEKAL, Burgert. Conspiracy theories and fake news in reader comments on news reports from Maroela Media during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2023, vol.63, n.4, pp.921-945. ISSN 2224-7912.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2019, the world has been disrupted in unprecedented ways. The virus resulted in millions of deaths, prompting governments to impose lockdowns and travel restrictions, severely impacting economies. South Africa was no exception, and the South African government introduced strict and controversial measures to combat the spread of the virus, including closing schools and businesses. The pandemic was accompanied by a wave of false information and conspiracy theories, fuelled by social media and other online platforms. False information included unproven drugs and treatments for COVID-19 such as chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine or garlic, while conspiracy theories ranged from claims that the virus was a hoax to claims that it was deliberately created in a biological weapons laboratory. There were also rumours that the COVID-19 pandemic was created by the elite such as the billionaires Bill Gates or George Soros, to control people, which fed into conspiracy theories related to the New World Order. Claims were also made that vaccines would be toxic, control people, be ineffective, or had not been tested thoroughly. Both Russia and China also contributed to the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories, thus making the pandemic a political issue on a global level. Such false information and conspiracy theories led to confusion and mistrust of authorities, undermining efforts to control the spread of the virus. Fake news and conspiracy theories have also occurred against the background of increasing distrust in structures of authority and authoritative sources such as the mainstream media and science and represent an important moment in a Zeitgeist where truth decay is increasing. The current study examines the manifestation of fake news and conspiracy theories in reader comments on Maroela Media reports on COVID-19 posted over the past three years. A list of keywords was compiled to highlight relevant reader comments, after which computational topic modelling involving word co-occurrence networks was used to identify themes. Important themes are discussed using examples and previous research. The findings indicate that although few comments can be clearly linked to fake news and conspiracy theories, conspiracy theories and fake news do appear, especially regarding the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, the existence of the pandemic itself, the questioning of emergency measures, and the suggestion of alternative treatments. Typical comments include that COVID-19 is just a cold and that emergency measures are therefore unnecessary; that vaccines are untested and dangerous; that ivermectin is safe and tested; that "Big Pharma" is making money from the pandemic; and that there is more behind the pandemic than what the mainstream media are reporting on. Some commentaries also mention specific conspiracy theories involving George Soros, Bill Gates, the New World Order, population control, and even the supposed manufacturing of COVID-19 in a biological weapons laboratory. Arguments for other alternative treatments such as garlic and chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine rarely feature. It was also found that distrust in elites, which is characteristic of conspiracy theories in general, manifests in some reader comments expressing distrust in the South African government, especially regarding corruption.

Keywords : COVID-19; conspiracy theories; fake news; news comments; pandemic; topic modelling; truth decay.

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