SEATTLE, Washington — In Africa, viral misinformation about the coronavirus has circulated across social media since the beginning of the pandemic. Throughout the continent, articles, Facebook posts and memes have made claims saying alcohol kills the virus, sharing face masks is O.K. and Africans can’t get the coronavirus. Even heads of state have contributed to the spread of fake news in Africa.
Needless to say, false information and fake news about a global pandemic can seriously harm people’s ability to remain healthy and safe. However, Africa’s “infodemic” has taken a wild approach to this. Salva Kirr, the president of South Sudan, is promoting “’protective’ badges” that release chlorine dioxide—which was identified by the FDA as a potentially harmful substance—that people can wear to fend off the coronavirus. Another widely-circulated story in Tanzania claimed President John Magufuli banned masks in public, which was tweeted with a fake signed press statement.
Fake news in Africa
However, fake news in Africa is not new and has actually been widespread in recent years, causing problems across the continent. In 2018, BBC News embarked on a research project called “Beyond Fake News” to identify misinformation and its effect in Kenya, Nigeria and India. Through the analysis of more than 8,000 articles in the two African countries, thousands of Facebook pages and WhatsApp messages and interviews with individuals, the project identified fake news as a pressing problem.
In addition, the researchers found that national preoccupations are evident in the content of fake news, making the misinformation more likely to capture the attention and belief from viewers. For example, the unemployment rate in Nigeria sits around 19%. Consequently, misinformation regarding employment comprises 6.2% of fake news stories shared on WhatsApp. In addition, Nigeria often has problems and anxiety surrounding terrorism, which accounts for 3% of fake news on WhatsApp. According to an Ichikowitz Survey, approximately 86% of 18-to-24 year olds in Africa own a smartphone and 90% of them use it for social media. Therefore, misinformation likely reaches a huge proportion of young Africans on a regular basis.
How Zimbabweans are tackling the pandemic’s misinformation crisis
While fake news in Africa on social media poses a significant threat to Africans during the pandemic, one group of young people in Zimbabwe created a task force that works to disband coronavirus misinformation. Working alongside charity organization Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), the group spends its day scanning social media to pinpoint and correct misinformation surrounding COVID-19.
The group uses modern-day tactics to alert Zimbabweans and Africans everywhere about coronavirus misinformation. They invented WhatsApp stickers stating “Fake News Alert” and “Wash your hands thoroughly b4 you touch your face.” They have worked with popular comedians to spread correct information through humor. Their announcements on both social media and radio are assumed to have reached over 100,000 people thus far.
Along with Nigeria and Kenya, Zimbabwe experiences regular problems with fake news. An Ichikowitz survey found that 52% of young Zimbabweans believe that the prevalence of fake news impairs their ability to remain well-informed. However with VSO and the youth group leading the way, coronavirus misinformation is making up a lesser portion of the fake news circuit.
Their work is especially important in Africa. COVID-19 cases throughout the continent skyrocketed during June due to economies re-opening across the globe following months of lockdown and border closings. The World Bank also predicted that as many as 58 million people could fall into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic, making the importance of accurate information on social media potentially necessary to sustaining a life free of poverty.
Other resources for fact-checking
The website Africa Check compiles data “banks” of factual information and attempts to check timely misinformation when it arises. WhatsApp and Facebook also struck up a partnership with many African governments to combat misinformation in the continent using tactics including bots and push notifications.
Africans everywhere are fighting social media misinformation with social media for good. Through efforts across the continent, people can hopefully eradicate fake news in Africa to safely live through the pandemic and beyond.
– Grace Ganz