The information crisis underscores the role of fact-checking in information dissemination. Even if we can’t have ‘gatekeepers’ in the truest sense of the word on social media, we all need to pay attention to fact-checking at the individual and institutional levels…

The ongoing coronavirus infection, which has afflicted at least 206 countries across the world has created a new wildfire called an ‘infodemic’ – an epidemic of misinformation on the pandemic.

The infodemic is manifesting as conspiracy theories, wild stories, phantom imaginations about the origin of the pandemic and spurious treatment options and out-of-context visual materials about its effects.

The deluge of misinformation on the pandemic is troubling, and o part of the world is immune to it. All African countries are affected in varying degrees. And fake news and conspiracy theories seems more believable in the psyche of many people who are in denial of the existence of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Reflecting on the situation in East Africa, a key informant from Kenya recently said:

“There are too many videos and podcasts that promote conspiracy theories in East Africa. The videos and messages create panic and mistrust in the region. People don’t know what to believe. It is scary.”

Scary. Indeed. The situation is the same in many countries. An interviewee from Western Cameroun said:

“There is so much corona news everywhere. People are panicking. Villages (are) in disarray as they don’t understand what is happening due to poor community sensitisation.”

And back home in Nigeria, the information ecosystem is polluted with propaganda and falsehood, which some people have believed. Some key informants from Lagos said: “coronavirus is a ‘419-disease’; it is a fake disease created out of the super-power rivalry between China and USA.” Another said: “there is no disease. It’s a 5G scam.” Yet another person said, “it’s a judgement from God.”

But why the misinformation and what are the consequences of this?

Limited Knowledge of the History of Pandemics

Pandemics are part of humanity but most people do not have a sense of the history of pandemics. In a straw poll of colleagues, we asked how many people knew five major pandemics of the modern times. Less than ten per cent of the group, comprising University graduates, could name two previous pandemics. This poor knowledge of the history of pandemics is contributing to the lack of understanding of COVID-19. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a pandemic, which has killed over 32 million people. The “Hong Kong Flu” of 1968 killed a million people. The deadly 1918 influenza killed close to 50 million people. What about the Black Death, which ravaged Europe, Africa, and Asia, from 1346 to 1353 and killed an estimated 75 to 200 million people. Not to talk of the Ebola pandemic in West Africa a couple of years ago. The present pandemic has shown that there is need to be properly educated to avoid being destroyed for the lack of knowledge.

The Evolving Nature of Coronavirus

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a novel virus, implying that it was never known about until recently. Scientists and public health experts are thus learning as they deal with the pandemic. There are several unknowns about its pattern and behaviour, which is confounding policy makers, scientists and indeed the public, which is not schooled in the language of medical science and public health. Some concerns that have surfaced include the following:

  • The disease does not afflict Africans or people of African descent. However many Africans in Africa and people of African descent in the US have been affected?
  • The disease does not affect young people. It only for old people. Data from the evolving nature of the virus however shows that young people are also victims of the pandemic.
  • The disease does not thrive in hot or tropical environments. We do not have any experience yet of how it is going to behave.

Because of its newness, there are many unknowns about the novel coronavirus. This calls for extreme vigilance and adherence to its containment strategies.

…media reporting of the pandemic is drab and un-empowering. Many of the stories lack context and are not compelling. On the other hand, there is an overdrive in the news and information influenced by international media and gossips from conspiracy theories. This weakness has given social media a field day, with many unsubstantiated products making the rounds.

Lack of Continental Communication Approach

Currently there is no coherent and widely applied communication agenda for African countries on how to address the pandemic. Pandemics require centralised and coherent messaging for harmonised understanding and action. The absence of a coordinated response at the programmatic level has resulted in the lack of a common communication agenda. There is a strong possibility that Africa could be seriously affected by the virus, even at that we are yet to see any common continental social mobilisation agenda. From the various interviews in many African countries, our communication agenda for the pandemic is lacklustre. We need to wake up!

Weak National Communication Response

National communication structures in many countries are weak and ill-equipped to respond to the crisis. For example Nigeria has experienced a weak and anaemic public communication and social mobilisation programme on the pandemic. Some of the messages from various agencies are dry, dull and sleepy. We need a more robust communication agenda, with strong leadership at all levels. We need credible spokespersons to debunk myths, deliver the story from the propagandists of our time and lead a more convincing narrative in the right direction.

Generally, media reporting of the pandemic is drab and un-empowering. Many of the stories lack context and are not compelling. On the other hand, there is an overdrive in the news and information influenced by international media and gossips from conspiracy theories. This weakness has given social media a field day, with many unsubstantiated products making the rounds.

Wrong Messages and Actions From Political, Faith and Social Leaders

Across various levels of influencers – political, faith, celebrities and social – we have seen outright misinformation and manipulation of the narrative. Faith leaders have suddenly become experts on disease outbreak and treatment. Many of them are now preaching the ‘corona gospel’, with corrosive anointing. Unfortunately their followers have been equally bewitched into ingesting lies and half-truths. Some traditional leaders are offering bogus claims of treatment. Uninformed intellectuals are promoting conspiracy narratives in their responses. The greatest plague of the COVID-19 is the army of quacks, pundits, intellectuals, false apostles, uninformed social leaders and celebrities who multiply lies and promote fake news about the disease.

The Misuse of Data

Data is a critical input of democracy and good governance. Data is critical to understanding the trajectory of the virus. However, our airwaves and interpersonal communication devices have been flooded with data and statistics which are not true or are half-truths. Some people basically lie with statistics and fish for information and data to confirm their biases. We need credible sources of data and a critical mind when dealing with data on the crisis.

The Menace of Social media

The ubiquity and universality of social media has resulted in unprecedented misinformation about the virus. We have seen a tsunami of negative information, lies, fake news and bogus stories on the pandemic. Social media platforms have become the powerhouse of polluted information creating panic and public hysteria because of the conspiracy theories. A new bunch of jesters, locally and from the Diaspora, is on the rampage with delegitimising content curated online. They unleash memes, posts, GIFs, adverts, and manipulated information materials on their victims. Our digital media platforms have suddenly become the engine of misinformation, yet they can also be used for sharing correct and truthful information. Unfortunately, correct news does not move as fast as negative news.

The public health education response at the onset of the pandemic was hardly in local languages. In Nigeria, over the years health promotion has been relegated to the background in public health and education efforts across the country. Often times health promotion efforts are introduced as an afterthought.

Scarcity of Local Language Messaging

There is a high level of overdependence of messaging in official languages to the detriment of conceptualising and implementing message development in local languages. The public health education response at the onset of the pandemic was hardly in local languages. In Nigeria, over the years health promotion has been relegated to the background in public health and education efforts across the country. Often times health promotion efforts are introduced as an afterthought.

What are the consequences of this information crisis? Here is our summary of the possible consequences.

The Reign of Misinformation

    • Massive overload of wrong misinformation on the origin of the pandemic;
    • Wrong information on who could get infected and means of protection against infection;
    • Misinformation on actions to take;
    • Multiplication and speedy dissemination of misinformation;
    • Curating wrong content on digital media;
    • Missed opportunity for effective health on pandemics;
    • Repetition and circulation of false/misleading narratives;
    • Giving oxygen to falsehood.

Stress, Panic, Fear and Hysteria

    • There is fear and panic in many African countries;
    • Fear about death and the future;
    • A revival of fatalism;
    • Sickness of information;
    • Confusion on what to believe;
    • Believing everything shared on social media;
    • Deleting everything shared on social media.

Delegitimising the Pandemic

    • People denying the pandemic;
    • Trivialising the effect of the pandemic;
    • Stigmatising groups that are considered more vulnerable – the rich, travellers;
    • Sharing innuendos on developed countries experiencing a worse level of infection;
    • Believing a false narrative e.g., Africans don’t catch the virus or that the virus is for travellers, the rich, the ‘been to.’

Apathy and Lack of Compliance To Containment Strategies

  • The public not being fully supportive of containment strategies;
  • Disobedience to government action;
  • Organising misinformation campaigns on government welfare action, as illustrated in Nigeria.

 Recommendations

    1. A new imperative for fact-checking: The information crisis underscores the role of fact-checking in information dissemination. Even if we can’t have ‘gatekeepers’ in the truest sense of the word on social media, we all need to pay attention to fact-checking at the individual and institutional levels;
    2. Speedy and creative communication to promote a counter-narrative to the current one: People are desperate for information. We need speedy communication to address the myths and promote empowering messages. Both official and unofficial formats are needed to promote the correct narrative. Conspiracy theories need to be addressed directly, with credible information and sources. Coordinated effort by media and fact-checking organisations need to be stepped up.
    3. Strengthening behaviour change communication structures: COVID-19 brought to the fore the importance of health promotion/education and behaviour change communication. The virus does not just spread by itself, people spread it. And to prevent it, people have to take up certain behaviour practices, which then underscores the invaluable role of the health promotion/education and behaviour change communication;
    4. Building the media’s institutional response to improved health, medical science and science reporting: This aspect of journalism is almost dead in a number of media houses. This can be built upon a number of initiatives from the last decade. One of such was the World Federation of Science Journalists efforts that built capacity of Anglophone/Francophone, Arabophone, Latin America and Asian journalists on science journalism. There are other efforts from other country-based organisations like the Development Communications Network, based in Nigeria. These efforts, and many others, need immediate revival and/or reinvigoration. In summary, the COVID-19 information crisis is a truth war. It is reflection of the ‘new information disorder’ that needs immediate attention by experts and non-experts alike. In a DIY (Do It Yourself); all citizens need to shine their eyes and discover the truth for themselves, if not nations would drown in a troubling sea of falsehood and half-truths.

Adebayo Fayoyin is a visiting professor of Mass Communication at Caleb University, Imota, Lagos, and Akin Jimoh is executive director at Development Communications Network.

Image credit: thedailystar.net