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Coronavirus: fake news epidemic

| October 30, 2020 | 0 Comments

The teachable moment: rising above misinformation or fake news in Africa: another strategy to control COVID-19 spread

BY BRIGHT OPOKU AHINKORAH, EDWARD KWABENA AMEYAW, JOHN ELVIS HAGAN JR, ABDUL-AZIZ SEIDU AND THOMAS SCHACK

Misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic is gradually gaining much popularity and amplifying the threat facing humanity about the continuous spread of the virus, regardless of one’s location.

T his article provides a clear understanding on some COVID-19 misinformation and the inherent implications this poses to public health in Africa, and highlights the potential strategies to curb this trend. Misinformation can be defined as ‘any claim of fact that is currently false due to lack of scientific evidence’.1

From the very onset of the pandemic, there were some misconceptions that due to perhaps the geographical conditions (e.g. warm temperatures) of the African continent, the causative organisms of the virus would not thrive. Another misleading piece of information was that Africans may have strong immune systems to battle the virus.2 However, the sudden rise of the pandemic across the continent debunks these earlier erroneous impressions. These recent developments have raised serious public health concerns. Of particular concern is the potential spread of the disease through multitudes of false, misleading and/or unsubstantiated COVID-19 news contents to the general public, termed as ‘misinformation’.

Due to the wave of panic about transmissions and multiple infections, many people are currently spreading a wide range of diverse misinformation through the internet. The widespread, misguided COVID-19-related misinformation can spread the disease quickly and can cause xenophobia on the continent.3 Therefore, understanding the various forms of misinformation about COVID-19 and the threat it poses to the general public could be essential for various governments, public health officials as well as the media, to design effective information campaigns and other pragmatic interventions.

Misconceptions and/or misinformation on COVID-19

Misinformation frequently thrives by forcing people to be involved with news content in an emotional way, rather than following a logical path.4 Emotional reactions from people are more likely to stimulate belief in false content.

Various conspiracy theories on COVID-19 in Africa have been thriving on social media platforms, ranging from the creation of a biological weapon to break the economic power of China against other economically endowed nations like the US, to the use of local herbs or products (e.g. coconut oil, ginger, garlic) to cure the virus. Therefore, the general public may be tempted to turn to unproductive, unsubstantiated and somewhat harmful medications for the cure of the virus. Additionally, people have either overreacted (e.g. hoarded goods, hiked prices of goods and services) and/or more riskily, underreacted and spread the virus by ignoring social isolation/distancing.5

Another widespread myth currently in circulation is that home treatments can cure or prevent people from contracting the virus. The American Food and Drug Administration has given serious caution to the global public on the use of sodium chloride mixed with citric acid – a solution purported on social media to have some antimicrobial, antiviral and antibacterial properties. According to this agency, this solution causes severe vomiting, life-threatening low blood pressure and acute liver failure.6

The propaganda problem

The biggest challenge is that this misinformation or fake news is drowning official public health advice on COVID-19.7 The worrying aspect is that the current sociopolitical climate in Africa has engineered the spread of the COVID-19-related misinformation through propagation of unsubstantiated news. These somewhat misleading COVID-19 news bulletins have been fabricated by a number of persons and groups promoting nationalism and anti-immigration views through video messages, pictures, interviews and newspapers to provide false claims.

Additionally, political actors have taken advantage of the situation to subdue their opponents, and leverage on the virus outbreak for their political gain using the same channels of communication.8 Local scammers and internet bloggers have been creating web links to spread COVID-19 misrepresentations with provocative banners (i.e. headlines) to lure users to visit and make advertising revenue for the owners, or directly promote unverified treatment protocols or medications for COVID-19. These unscrupulous activities may be pervasive in societies that have weak intelligence systems. Such activities, if unchecked, might increase as the number of coronavirus cases rise. Because social media platforms offer a broader landscape for COVID-19 misinformation to reach a wider audience, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is working in close collaboration with global social media firms to battle this challenge. Identified methods being used include using standardised fact-checking configurations, encouraging precise news content and making incorrect content exceedingly difficult to find.9

Distributing the right messages and strategies to control COVID-19 spread

Local community and health organisations, civil society, mass media as well as other support groups should endeavour to circulate accurate COVID-19 information.

Realising this goal requires strategic partnerships at local and global levels, integrating offline and online resources through coordinated efforts, so that authorised information is circulated across different platforms.10 Specifically, ministries in charge of information and local media commissions should impose strict measures like demonetisation against commercial misinformation creators (e.g. internet bloggers). Local governments could task technological companies in partnership with health institutions to build a centralised system that identifies abusers of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Running advertisements, including video messages that provide fake and/or unrealistic (i.e. false) medical claims to project COVID-19-related information for monetary gains, should be intercepted and removed from media-sharing platforms. These targets can also be achieved by the use of innovative technologies like natural language processing or text-mining methods, to identify online content that has no empirical evidence.

The distinctive nature of fake news

Data-mining algorithms have been used effectively to discover distinctive features of fake news or misinformation, which were subsequently removed from specific platforms.11 New strategies that integrate existing fact-checking structures to promote accurate COVID-19-related information on practical preventive measures (e.g. frequent hand washing with soap, frequent use of hand sanitisers, continuous use of nose masks and other personal protective equipment/PPE and social distancing) should immediately be established. For instance, Facebook is currently making advertisements guiding consumers to local health authorities, whereas Google is championing the WHO’s websites when a search is conducted with the virus’s keywords.

Other healthcare establishments and personnel could also dominate social media and other media platforms with precise information on the virus.12 Various local governments and media workers should use public health experts to provide relevant and accurate information to avoid fear among the general public.13 According to researchers Areeb Mian and Shuihat Khan,14 if health establishments (e.g. frontline workers) effectively control, educate and deal with public worries, the level of cynicism among the populace often churned by some social commentators, political opponents and internet bloggers could be reduced. Another stringent measure could be that personnel responsible for the production and propagation of COVID-19 misinformation or fake news on online portals should be charged with public deceit, and made to face the law to serve as a deterrent to other potential culprits. Local and national governing authorities and law enforcement agencies should be notified of these problems, so that necessary steps could be taken to carefully address them in different African regions. Cybersecurity is one area that Africa governments should also seek to develop in the wake of this current pandemic, though it may require huge financial investment.

This write-up is not without some limitations. First, although this infodemic may perhaps vary from country to country, the current situation regarding the pandemic makes it extremely difficult to collate within and between country-specific trends and magnitude. Second, the lack of country-specific misinformation in the review does not make it nationally representative; this might restrict research accuracy. Despite these shortcomings, this conceptualised article has research, public and policy relevance. Future empirical work could investigate within and between country trends and the magnitude of misinformation or fake news related to COVID19 on social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube), using hashtags and keywords associated with the pandemic.

The power of misinformation

As Africa’s COVID-19 situation becomes a public health dilemma with between and within country multiple transmissions, effective information governance across the general public should be upheld to replace any misinformation or fake news related to COVID-19. Regrettably, falsehoods on various media platforms will continue to surge high as COVID19 lingers on. Therefore, the dissemination of misinformation can powerfully impact people’s actions and change the value of the interventions employed by local governments through their health institutions and other stakeholders. While some misinformation or fake news may be harmless, other misguided sources might pose a serious threat, by misleading the general populace to depend on these unwarranted claims for protection and/or prioritise them over scientifically proven procedures. Hence, fully accurate information flow is vital for the ultimate benefit of Africa’s diverse populations suffering from the psychosocial and health burden related to this pandemic. According to some research,15 giving regular prompts by various mass media platforms on the notion of accuracy might be enough to enhance people’s sharing decisions related to COVID-19 information, and ease the volume of misinformation on the virus. These mass media interventions could be enforced to help minimise the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. Lastly, every citizen, regardless of his or her geographical location, should unconditionally be entitled to accurate information, with a more compelling need, especially during this COVID-19 era where such content might have dire consequences on the general well-being of the people.

The authors of this article work at the following institutions:
the Australian Centre for Public and Population Health
Research (ACPPHR), Faculty of Health, University of
Technology Sydney, Ultimo, New South Wales, Australia; the
Department of Population and Health, University of Cape
Coast, Cape Coast, Ghana; Neurocognition and ActionBiomechanics Research Group, Faculty of Psychology and
Sport Sciences, Bielefeld University, Bielefeld, Germany; and
the Department of Health, Physical Education and
Recreation, University of Cape Coast, Cape Coast, Ghana. We
thank them for using a creative commons attribution licence,
which allows us to feature the article here. The article first
appeared on Frontiers in Communication (see:
https://www.frontiersin.org) on 17 June 2020. To read a
longer version of this article plus references, please visit:
www.ieducation.co.za or www.isasa.org

Category: Spring 2020

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