South Africa: Text Messages - Flip the Covid-19 Script

Like the coronavirus, rumours and panic spread from person to person as elucidated in Homer's Iliad, increasing the reach of contagion. Used correctly, social media could halt the spread.

Never in the history of humankind has it been easier to spread gossip, half-truths, rumours and lies. Social media is proving to be anything but, carrying messages laced with malice and dosed with misinformation that sows panic.

Innocent and not so innocent lives have been ruined, reputations tarnished and lifetimes of achievement besmirched. People - sociable, gregarious, inquisitive and cunning - have always loved to chat and speculate, praise extravagantly and cast doubt indiscriminately. On the last, the phrase "throw shade" hits its mark.

What is particularly poisonous about social media as opposed to the muttered hint or the whispered innuendo delivered face to face is that a stroke on a keypad can send a message to many people instantly. In a second, a network of mainly like-minded persons is sharing something juicy that is not necessarily verified or indeed verifiable but which has the "authority" of all text messages through the ages: the power of the written - and therefore indelible - word.

Technology means that not only text can be recorded and transmitted. Now audio and video can be shared widely and easily, too. Last week, in the midst of what is possibly the gravest crisis ever to face human life, a voice recording did the social media rounds claiming to be a message about Covid-19 from the head of the virology department at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. The place where the world's first heart transplant took place is an eminent institution and therefore much credence was given to the recording. Later on the same day, the hospital repudiated the recording. By then, the damage was done.

Rumour and panic had spread the word. People already downcast by the threat the novel coronavirus poses to their lives and that of loved ones, family and friends, were now plunged into that metaphorical slough of despond, a place from which it is extremely difficult to escape.

The evil twins

Why spread disinformation and dishearten people? The answer possibly lies in human nature, which loves putting one over one's fellow beings. The recording contained much that was true, some that was moot and bits that were alarmist. It was a fairly well fabricated hoax, or bit of fake news, with one howler that might have been intended to signal that it could not be believed. That was the staggering projected statistic that 40% of Italy's population would die from the virus: 25 million people out of a total populace of 60 million. A big figure, an even bigger lie, but easy to miss in the panic of listening.

Panic and rumour are the evil twins who work hand in hand. They have long duped and terrorised humankind, panic starting the rush to irrationality and rumour spreading the bad or untruthful news by word of mouth: from one human's mouth to another's ear, and thence from that receiver's mouth to yet another's ear. It is an ingenious way of increasing the reach of contagion; indeed, it is in a similar way that Covid-19 moves from person to person.

The most striking and memorable appearances of panic and rumour in literature are in The Iliad of Homer. Composed at some point between 750 BCE and 550 BCE - 2 770 or 2 570 years ago - it is the founding epic poem of Western literature. It is set towards the end of the siege of the city of Ilion (Troy), whence its name, Iliad, "a tale of Ilion".

Here is how Homer, the blind poet credited with composing The Iliad and The Odyssey, neither of which were written down until hundreds of years later, introduces Rumour, in a scene unforgettable for its use of a simile from nature. The translation is by the peerless Richmond Lattimore.

"Like the swarms of clustering bees that issue forever

in fresh bursts from the hollow in the stone, and hang like

bunched grapes as they hover beneath the flowers in springtime

fluttering in swarms together this way and that way,

so the many nations of men from the ships and the shelters

along the front of the deep sea beach marched in order

by companies to the assembly, and Rumour walked blazing among them, Zeus' messenger, to hasten them along."

And here is Panic at work, in EV Rieu's prose translation.

"Ares, the God of War, spurred on the Trojan forces; Athene of the Flashing Eyes, the Achaeans. Terror and Panic were at hand. And so was Strife, the War-god's Sister, who helps him in his bloody work. Once she begins, she cannot stop."

By using social media honestly, humans might have a chance to stop strife, to stop panic and to stop rumour. We should grab it while we can.

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