Fake news: A new threat to the fight against AIDS

8 February 2017

By: Professor Salim Abdool Karim Director: CAPRISA and Aisha Abdool Karim
Research Fellow: CAPRISA

Fake news is emerging as a scourge; influencing amongst others, presidential elections and share prices.  Over the last few days, a fake news story doing the rounds is aimed at deliberately undermining the fight against AIDS. Pretending to be genuine, an image of newspaper article with a photo of eminent scientist, Robert Gallo in his laboratory claims that he created HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as “a secret weapon to wipe out the African race”. While the story is, without doubt, simply nonsense and lies, it plays on the fanciful imagination of those who persist in wanting to believe conspiracy theories about the west trying to destroy Africa.

Fake news is not new – just a reincarnation of what was previously called “propaganda” or “disinformation”.  What is new, however, is the way the internet and social media has given these age-old enemies of the truth, an opportunity to spread uncontrollably to every corner of the globe almost instantaneously.  These platforms currently provide an unfettered avenue to spread lies and falsehoods without identification or consequences for the purveyors of fake news.

The role of news in society is to inform the public using facts and provide people with reliable, important information. This role is being threatened by the concept of fake news, which by definition are articles that are not genuine in their content and are a hoax. The topic of fake news came into focus on various global media platforms in 2016 – propaganda on the U.S. election results and untruths about South Africa’s Finance Minister that made sensational headlines. Of deep concern is the detrimental impact fake news on health issues can have on the wellbeing and lives of million of people, particularly the poor and vulnerable in society.

Fake news is particularly dangerous when reports on HIV/AIDS proliferate falsehoods about the epidemic and puts our society at greater risk. South Africa is in a particularly precarious position, given that the Thabo Mbeki era has influenced sectors of the South African population to consider and, in some instances, believe outrageous conspiracies on HIV and AIDS.  AIDS denialism and far-fetched claims of prevention and treatment for HIV/AIDS has made the South African population more susceptible to misinformation about the epidemic. Indeed, misinformation starts with elected government officials and filters to fake news stories that are perpetuated though online media websites, blogs and social media platforms.

An example of inaccurate news, conveying falsehoods, was an article published in The Star in August 2016, entitled “AIDS/HIV drug ‘can damage liver and cause death’”, on how antiretrovirals (ARVs), drugs which are used to treat HIV positive people, could kill patients has not been contextualised and has the potential to cause grave alarm. This is worrying, given that there are currently over 7 million people living with HIV in South Africa, with approximately 3.4 million people on ARVs. Stories such as these have the power, if believed and shared, to foster an environment that endangers the lives of millions of people living with HIV.

The underlying problem here is a misunderstanding of the facts and information being misrepresented. In the above example, the article about the side effects of ARVs was based on a study that was underway by researchers at the University of Cape Town. The study found that Efavirenz, which is an ARV commonly used to treat HIV in South Africa’s public health sector, caused liver damage in some patients. However, the article which referenced that patients “are at risk of grave liver damage and death” glossed over the fact that the side effect was uncommon. Aside from that, if patients experience any symptoms that are cause for concern, they can easily switch to an alternative drug.

With fake news stories like the one about Dr Gallo creating the AIDS virus, it could have a profound impact on human lives, if believers decided to stop their medication. For those who are aware of the well-known fact that HIV has been shown to have existed for almost a century, long before Dr Gallo was even born, they would recognise the story as ludicrous, but to those not familiar with the scientific evidence showing that HIV emanated from African Green Monkeys and was being transmitted in Kinshasa in the 1920s before spreading along newly laid railway lines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These fake claims about the origins of HIV only serve to draw the focus away from the reality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, such as the increasing number of adolescent girls and young women being infected with HIV in South Africa.  In this context, distractions with falsehoods undermine current research underway to develop an HIV vaccine and new ways to help women protect themselves from HIV.

Unfortunately, these are not the only cases where false information has been spread about topics relating to HIV/AIDS.  In fact, the problem is common and the Human Rights Campaign has partnered with the Prevention Access Campaign to launch an ‘Accuracy Watchdog’. The aim of this laudable initiative is to monitor news media for any misinformation being spread about HIV/AIDS, focusing on PrEP and ‘undetectability’ of the virus.

There aren’t many initiatives similar to this one, which means it is easy to publish false stories and for misinformation to go undetected by the pubic. While we live in a time of social media and ease of access to information online, it is important to note the downsides to such an environment. The current online landscape allows everyone a space to have their say and state their opinions, an important facet to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. However, it is important to note that an opinion should be supported by facts and is not a means through which to spread misinformation. In a time where citizen journalism is on the rise, it is the responsibility of the individual to be circumspect and refrain from baseless content that can have serious ramifications.

It is essential for the public to filter news thoroughly and carefully assess the reliability and reputation of the source, before judging the authenticity of the news story. It is in the public’s best interest to ensure that they are not lured in by sensationalised and ‘clickbait’ news on health issues. If not, they are in danger of perpetuating harmful myths about HIV.