Without doubt, there is too much information to be processed. In surviving this infodemic, the onus is on the media industry and every individual to complementarily mitigate the production and spread of misinformation (no matter the public good value attached to it). It may not be a bad time to embrace offline behaviours that momentarily take attention away from the Internet.


Every epidemic triggers an epidemic of false rumours, and in these peculiar weeks tensions are probably running high. Uncertainty, risk and emotions are difficult to live with at the best of times, and these are certainly not the best of times. Tension, fear and social isolation are perfect breeding grounds for misinformation. Spread virally by social media, WhatsApp messages, texts, scams or spam, misinformation is often accompanied by a recommendation to “look at this” from trusted friends and family. The result is a heady mix of hoaxes and misguided – sometimes dangerous – ‘advice’ to help prevent or cure coronavirus in this season. The rapid spread of the disease has been accompanied by an outbreak of false claims and conspiracy theories on social and mainstream media, allowing misinformation on the origins of the virus and hoaxes on cures to travel faster than the infection itself. Over two million tweets touting conspiracy theories about the virus have been posted since the disease began to spread outside China.

Recent turn of events have seen a surge in attention to trusted news sources. Television is once again proving that the growth of new media channels hasn’t displaced it as the dominant force among media audiences. We are also seeing the importance and resurgence of the two-step flow theory of communication, and the possible formation of a new communication tree, independent of mainstream media. While this evolves, it is important to ensure that in the bid to increase knowledge, change attitude and influence behaviour on safety measures or how to survive the pressures of the time, panic is not promoted. Therefore, understanding what channels and which approaches are most appropriate to transmit information will enable sources to reach their target audiences more efficiently.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Twitter activated extra platform features in African markets (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, and Tunisia) dedicated to amplifying credible information on the pandemic. This feature reduces wrong but viral tweets from users’ search results and returns tweets from local authorities and officials at the top of their feed. Despite commitment by technology companies to fight online disinformation more than a year ago, their business model works against such collaborative efforts. Information pollution is now on a global scale, further worsening the declining trust in media and public institutions. The question is: Will platforms collaborate to fight misinformation transparently? The authenticity of their intention is undergoing a natural testing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many misinformation cases in Africa circulate in private groups on the encrypted WhatsApp platform that makes them harder to target for tech companies. Misinformation is fuelled by deep distrust in government. This hampers the sharing of accurate information about the outbreak, especially in African nations. False or misleading claims and indifference to official warnings are emerging as giant obstacles in a region where poor health infrastructure provides fertile ground for COVID-19 to spread. One viral such misinformation on the continent is that black people are resistant to the virus because of their skin colour. Hollywood actor, Idris Elba was trolled after he announced he had tested positive to coronavirus. There were viral messages accusing him of being paid to put to bed the myth that black people were immune to the virus. In Nigeria, there were zombie rumours that the government had made-up stories of the first infections, just to cash in on international funds.

Conspiracy theorists on social media platforms also alleged a link between coronavirus and 5G mobile networks, claiming that Wuhan and Diamond Princess outbreaks were directly caused by electromagnetic fields and the introduction of 5G and wireless technologies. Others alleged that the outbreak was cover-up for a 5G-related illness. Untested cures and treatments have also swirled on platforms like WhatsApp. These kinds of zombie rumour-mongering forced countries like South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria to implement strict rules ranging from lockdowns, curfews, and prison terms for persons sharing false claims. It is punishable by a six months jail term in South Africa, while Kenya’s controversial 2018 cybercrime law prescribes up to a 5 million KSH fine and 10 years imprisonment.

Emotion and fear beat information and media literacy. Young people got infected because of misinformation. Even the most media and information literate have been caught in the web of sharing unverified information “out of concern for loved ones or network”. Labelling something as false, but not providing explanation for this, often leaves people with questions, a data void (absence of quality information), misinformation that sources try to feed on. Credible sources should, at least, consider putting a time stamp on every information provided, while making them simple, shareable and visual, as the world adjusts to the ‘new normal’.

Without doubt, there is too much information to be processed. In surviving this infodemic, the onus is on the media industry and every individual to complementarily mitigate the production and spread of misinformation (no matter the public good value attached to it). It may not be a bad time to embrace offline behaviours that momentarily take attention away from the Internet.

Samuel Olaniran is of the department of Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. Email: samuel.olaniran1@students.wits.ac.za; Twitter handle: @Psalmuel35