The other COVID-19 pandemic: Fake news
False information in Nigeria is undermining medical advice, proffering fake cures, inciting panic and being used for political point-scoring.
The global COVID-19 pandemic is happening at a time when sorting facts from fiction is increasingly difficult. In Nigeria, a tsunami of misinformation and disinformation has accompanied the virus’ spread, provoking fear and exploiting vulnerabilities. Many Nigerians simply refuse to believe the disease’s existence.
Health misinformation is nothing new to Nigeria. At the height of the Ebola epidemic in 2014, false news swirled around the country. This included advice, allegedly from the Atta of Igala, that bathing in and ingesting saltwater could stop you getting the disease. This false information led to two deaths. Ebola itself killed eight people in Nigeria.
This pattern has already re-emerged during the COVID-19 outbreak. According to Lagos health officials, three people have been hospitalised after overdosing on chloroquine. This followed rumours, publicly endorsed by US President Donald Trump, that the drug could treat the virus.
A fear of the unknown and a deluge of information in the digital space creates fertile ground for fake news. Nigerians may be particularly vulnerable not because they are uniquely gullible, but because of weak communications between the government and the governed, high reverence for miracle healing and a dilapidated health care system.
Moreover, the threat of fake news is even greater in 2020 than in 2014. False information is more sophisticated than ever and its potential spread much wider. In 2015, Nigeria had 76 million internet subscribers. By 2019, this had increased to 122 million.
This means the already over-burdened Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) does not just have to combat COVID-19 but also fake news. A review by the Centre for Democracy and Development since the virus reached Nigeria suggests that purveyors of fake news have sought to incite panic and panic buying, proffer fake cures, undermine medical advice, promote hate speech particularly individuals of Chinese origin, and promote polarisation along political lines.
Who is spreading fake news?
Social media activists, influencers and self-styled warriors are using their social media platforms and fringe websites to proliferate misinformation, propagate conspiracy theories and promote the denial of COVID-19.
Sometimes their motivation is simply to grow their online followership. For instance, the controversial blogger Kemi Olunloyo tweeted that President Muhammadu Buhari is sick with a persistent cough and that a makeshift ICU had been set up to treat him. Within hours, the tweet had been liked 3,300 times and retweeted more than 2,000 times.
In other instances, sensationalist comments from supposed “health experts” have been spread widely. On 23 March, for example, an audio clip emerged on WhatsApp of an alleged World Health Organization (WHO) official predicting that at least 45 million Nigerians would die in the pandemic. The audio provoked so much attention that the NCDC issued a rebuttal. Other so-called experts have proffered cures such as constant sex or sitting in the sun, or have claimed that African blood is immune to the coronavirus. None of these have any medical basis.
Finally, there are also political ideologues who have been trying to exploit the pandemic to influence public opinion along partisan lines. Supporters of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have sought to create a narrative that it handled the Ebola crisis far better than the current government is dealing with COVID-19. The recent confirmation that Abba Kyari, the president’s chief of staff, has tested positive has given the opposition new ammunition, though this has been complemented with unsubstantiated rumours that ventilators have been moved from the isolation centre in Abuja to Aso Rock for Kyari’s personal use.
For their part, supporters of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) have sought to politicise the crisis by focusing more on the irresponsible action of individuals linked to the opposition. Confirmation that the son of Atiku Abubakar, the PDP’s 2019 presidential candidate, had contracted the virus was followed by fake photos and videos of the son dancing in clubs, ignoring government isolation advice.
How does it spread?
The platforms used to share COVID-19 misinformation vary across geopolitical zones and demographics in Nigeria. Facebook and WhatsApp continue to be the most popular messaging platforms, whilst Twitter, Instagram and traditional media play complementary roles. There is cross-posting across all platforms.
WhatsApp, in particular, is a common conduit as it allows for the circulation of different types of media such as audio, video, text and links. For audio in languages like Hausa, listeners do not necessarily have to be literate to understand.
Trust also plays a massive role in whether messages are believed and spread. Content is more likely to resonate when it comes from religious leaders, friends, family or other trusted authority figures. President Trump’s comment about the “very, very encouraging early results of chloroquine to treat Coronavirus” travelled further and were more likely to be believed that the subsequent clarification by the US Food and Drug Administration. Its credibility was, in part, linked to the fact that 58% of Nigerians believe President Trump “will do the right thing regarding world affairs”, according to a poll by Pew Research Centre.
Containing COVID-19 misinformation
To rapidly and effectively counter disinformation and misinformation, the Nigerian government must engage in a sustained two-way communication with its citizens. It must consistently and transparently provide information that responds to people’s concerns. A quick review of the NCDC official Twitter handle shows that, in many instances, questions and clarifications raised by individuals have not been directly responded to.
Civil society can also be leveraged by government bodies like the National Orientation Agency to ensure that correct information is shared widely in the public domain and that false news is quickly countered.
There is an urgent need in Nigeria and beyond to counter the scourge of fake news around coronavirus. As we’ve seen around the world, tackling the disease requires everyone to follow advice and do their part. Accurate information is critical.
Without clear and immediate action to tackle false information, the accompanying pandemic of fake news will make the COVID-19 pandemic much more challenging.