COLUMNS - 26 MAR 2020

Coronavirus and the war against fake news

Coronavirus and the war against fake news
Coronavirus.  Source: CDC via Unsplash

Believe it or not, within the first 48 hours of recommended isolation in Lagos, three cures to the novel coronavirus were discovered. Well, at least on WhatsApp:

“Soak aloe vera in water overnight and drink for six straight days.”

“Drink lemon water.” 

 “How to self administer chloroquine.” 

Of course, this was false information, but Nigerians love a good story anyway. Not just for consumption, though, we love to share these stories too, indeed that’s how many of us keep ourselves busy at home. 

What happens when these stories, presented as truth, in fact, are not?

To be honest, disinformation is the second front of this war on Covid-19. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set up a WhatsApp channel to help tackle the problem at the source. This false information phenomenon, more colloquially termed ‘fake news’ is more popular at the intersection of media and politics; but in contemporary battles against viruses and infections like Ebola and Lassa Fever, disinformation has become a major problem for health authorities. 

 

Forgive them, they know not what they do.

During the Ebola epidemic in 2014, WHO staff based in Nigeria lamented the pervasiveness of disinformation about remedies for treating Ebola. One of which was the famous salt bath or salt drinks. The traditional ruler of the Igala Kingdom in Kogi state prescribed the solution for his people and the news travelled much further than he might have imagined. Despite advertisements by the Federal government warning against salt as a remedy, Nigerians went ahead. Aside from the fact that Nigerians do not trust their government, people tried the salt treatment because of a lack of alternative solutions. 

A resident of Idah in Kogi state, Athanasius Ameh said, “We have nothing to lose with a saltwater bath". This reaction from Athanasius Ameh suggests that beyond the enabling technologies and platforms, there are psychological reasons why false information spreads so quickly. 

In the end, there were two salt water-related deaths

When chaos exists, there also is a vacuum and a wrestling match to fill it. Anytime there is a national anxiety, it’s not uncommon for solutions to start popping up. Humans share news, the same way they share viruses, sometimes unknowingly and sometimes knowingly. A study by The Conversation among media consumers in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa showed that 28% of Nigerians acknowledged having shared stories that turned out to be made up. In fact, 20% felt it was made up at the time they were sharing it. 

 

The empire’s new clothes

This time around, the world is tackling fake news and the virus simultaneously. 

We’re seeing technology firms, who have found themselves as the enablers now become the remediators. The owner of Whatsapp, Facebook, has pledged to assist researchers with gathering information and responding to fake news.  

Indeed, WhatsApp has been building its capability to deal with fake news in recent times. In 2018, WhatsApp introduced the “Forwarded” label, to let users know a message did not originate from the sender. Why was this so important? Because research showed people put more emphasis on the sender (and their perceived trustability) than on the content or the publisher.

Governments have also tried to tackle the problem. One example is the social media bill in Nigeria's senate with the intention to curb the spread of fake news. Though not without its controversies, it proposes heavy fines and jail terms for perpetrators. More recently, in South Africa, the Disaster Management Act has stipulated those who spread fake news about the coronavirus can be fined or serve a six-month prison sentence. 

 

The Holy Trinity of media

Ultimately, the fight against both the virus and false information is in our hands. Covid-19 does not spread, humans spread it. Similarly, false information needs agents to gather velocity. Since the coronavirus hit, there has been a surge in Google searches for the term "fact check." Unfortunately, Google Trends reveals no particular spike in Nigeria. Worst of all, all the searches are coming only from Lagos, which is not enough. There is work to be done. 

Nations around the world and the scientists they listen to are recommending social-distancing to limit the rate at which infections are increasing and flatten the curve (for the nerds: reduce the second derivative). If a virus can be mitigated by social-distancing, then perhaps viral disinformation can be given the same treatment.

Disinformation during times of crisis requires taking similarly extraordinary measures. Nigerians also need to practice social-distancing from their main sources of false information. In other words, limit their trust in close contacts, and instead place their trust in local and international media, and relevant information from government agencies. Not blindly of course, because even the BBC, notorious champions of fighting fake news, are not without blemish. But, this trinity of media has a responsibility and a history of holding each other to account. More importantly, because trusting friends and people on twitter with a few thousand followers is the fastest way to fall into a disinformation doom loop. 

In the same way, people can pass on a virus they don’t know they have, so too can they pass on information they don’t know (or don’t care) is false. At this moment, there ought to be a hierarchy of opinions. Our friends and family, whether on social media or in person, are at best a mixed bag, you never know what you’re going to get. The world is fighting to save lives and it’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of kitting up with the right information.

Follow this writer on Twitter @YvetteDimiri

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Yvette Uloma Dimiri

Yvette Uloma Dimiri

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