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The impact of fake news on mental health

April 20 2020 By Beth Cook

During this uncertain and stressful time of crisis, it is worrying to see that some individuals choose to create and spread false information designed to generate shock and fear amongst the public. A case in point is the Cape Town man who recorded and distributed a video, which later went viral, claiming that COVID-19 testing kits are contaminated. The man has since been arrested and appeared in court for contravening regulations of the Disaster Management Act, however social media continues to be flooded daily with similar false and misleading information as well as countless conspiracy theories.

Even more disturbing is the irresponsible journalism that is rife at the moment, with formerly reputable mainstream media organisations using sensational and alarmist headlines to garner as many clicks as possible with little regard for the impact on peoples' psychological and mental wellbeing. Some articles being published are based on fairly weak or outdated evidence, at times using extremely generalised information to substantiate quite specific claims. The content of many pieces are also not being sufficiently backed up by reliable and credible sources, while others fail to justify or validate their shocking headlines. Certain groups are even going as far as to repost inciting content which is blatantly politically motivated.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, South Africa was rated as the second most stressed nation in the world and some studies have estimated that more than 30% of South Africans suffer from some form of mental disorder in their lifetime. The current lockdown, coupled with continuous panic-inducing headlines and reports, is likely to exacerbate the feelings of fear, stress and anxiety which people are already experiencing. This could lead to a sharp increase in the already high rates of depression and suicide and very well see our country having to deal with a mental health crisis, on top of the current burden of the Coronavirus pandemic. 

During this tense and unsettling time, journalists and media organisations should have a moral obligation to report responsibly and ensure that accurate information is shared with the public. Equally, each one of us should also be cautious of the information we receive and what we choose to share via our social networks. Always check the facts and ensure the information is true before deciding to click on that send button. Let us take the lead with our own behaviour and also call out irresponsible journalists and media platforms to help stop the spread of harmful fake news.

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