Fake news has been a phenomenon that seems to have come to stay with humanity especially in recent times when the platforms to spread and disseminate are becoming more common. They come promoting misconception, misinformation or risky behaviour among the people. Sometimes events and situations give room for the merchants of fake news to up their games in disseminating such to achieve their aims which varies from scoring to cheaper political goals to achieving confusion and stoking chaos. It was first said to have become a more common commodity with the US presidential elections in 2015. In Nigeria, it equally became a weapon for political parties in the last general elections in 2019 with its attendant implications of fear, confusion, violence and others.
After politics, another area of life that fake news seemed to plagued much is the health sector. This became noticeable during outbreaks such as Ebola, SARS and the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. As a matter of fact, the Director General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus once declared that “ Fake news spread faster and more easily than this virus and is just as dangerous.” In the ongoing battle against COVD 19, the fight against fake news is as important as the war against the virus itself. The WHO has equally declared the dissemination of false or fake information as infodemic which according to the organisation is a twin brother of the pandemic – “we are not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” The WHO declared.
The incidence of infodemic is a global phenomenon. It is no respecter of the socio-political status of the countries of the world, fake and false information seems to have pervaded the globe leveraging on the existing online platforms which are used globally. From the US to New Zealand, China to Australia, Nigeria to Haiti, the phenomenon seems to be on the same mission to reverse any gain, no matter how little, that health workers who are battling the novel virus appear to have made. Such information undermines medical advice, proffer fake cures, incite panic and to score cheap political points. This is as experienced and observed in Nigeria.
Identifying the Infodemic, Sources, Features and Intents
Fake news comes in different sizes and shapes. The merchants of fake and untrue information spread it for different purposes. For a continued battle against fake news and information, there is a need to identify the types, the sources, features and the intent. This will be the focus of the piece using Nigeria as a case.
Fake news or information can come in different formats depending on the intent of the manufacturers. It could be misconception, misinformation, risky behaviour, mistrust and speculation. Misconception occurs when there is error in thinking with respect to the cause of the disease. For example, propagating other causes apart from the identified cause such as pointing to the installation of 5G mast as the source of the disease. Misinformation is giving wrong information on what is happening. For example, reporting higher figures than what the battling institution has released. Misinformation might not be deliberate. When such becomes a deliberate action, then it becomes disinformation. Risky behaviour is information that increases people’s involvement in what may increase the risk of the disease or cause more harm than good. The common belief that the virus cannot survive in a hot and humid atmosphere is a good example. Mistrust is spreading information that increases the level of distrust in government. A good example was the prevalent belief that COVID 19 was a smokescreen for the government to justify some spending as there was no virus in Nigeria then. Speculation deals with false information that speculates solutions to the disease. The current furore generated on whether Chloroquine can cure the disease.
Identifying the type of fake information is important as knowing the source. This is more important as more and more people show their belief in fake and baseless information regardless of the level of their education. Simply put, no matter the level of a person’s education, no one is immuned from falling victims of false or fake information. In Nigeria, people who are now referred to as the fifth estate of the realm are involved in spreading fake and unsubstantiated news and information. They are social media influencers whose followership across social media platforms is in millions. For example, Kemi Olunloyo is one of such in the Nigerian Twitter space. It was on her account that President Muhammadu Buhari’s sickness and persistent cough after his Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari, was said to have tested positive to Coronavirus broke. Her Black Thursday tweet alleging a top cabinet member in Aso Rock had died also went viral. Nothing substantial came out of such false alarm.
Partisans too also trade in fake information. They do that obviously to score political points or to undermine the efforts of the government they oppose in tackling the virus. The fake story of the son of former vice president Atiku Abubakar’s reckless behaviour after testing positive to Coronavirus. It was said that he ignored the government’s directive on self isolation and went partying and clubbing when he knew he was positive.
Apart from individuals and partisans, even the mainstream media also help in the spread of fake news. The Punch newspaper once reported the Center for Disease Control has said that people with beards should shave in order to be safe from Coronavirus. Fact Check later showed that the picture used was not in any way related to the prevention of the virus. The Nation and Tribune newspapers were also caught in the web when they relied on a widely circulated WhatsApp message to publish a story on the six missing Ejigbo returnees from the isolation centre in Osun State. The story was later pulled down from the newspaper’s website after the government debunked it. Some people argued that the pressure to be the first to publish is because of the sense of gatekeeping of the mainstream newspaper.
The sources of fake stories are important but they are not as critical as the people who assist such stories to spread. To be factual, it is becoming confusing to identify what is false and what is not in the midst of the array of information available on COVID 19. This is even more cumbersome as peddlers of fake information are becoming more sophisticated and are bent on proving the credibility of their unsubstantiated spins. Of all social media, Facebook and WhatsApp are recognized as mediums used by fake information merchants to spread their ‘‘news’’. These two platforms have a combination of text, videos, audio facilities that make people to be more vulnerable to receiving and spreading false information. This is aided by a heightened sense of need for information. This is because in crisis situations people need to fill their need for information. Fake information also spread because of the long existing distrust in government data and information. Government combating mechanisms are sometimes too slow for a prompt response. For long, there has always been an ‘‘official figure’’ as against an ‘‘unofficial source’’ and people tend to believe their unofficial sources. Therefore, people receive and share information by their aunties or uncles that claim some expertise in medicine or related discipline. Some even claim they have access to government sources. Research has established that in every social relationship, there are opinion leaders and opinion followers. Thus, it is easy for opinion followers to spread fake and unsubstantiated information received from their opinion leaders. This gives room for all sorts of misinformation and conspiracy theories. This puts the blame on individuals who may not be sources but assist fake news to spread widely like a wildfire.
Checking the menace of the information scourge
Sources have said that social media platforms that have served as channels of spreading fake information have made attempts to curb the spread of misinformation through their platforms. For instance, Facebook was reported to have clamped down on online Coronavirus rumours. Google flooded search results with growing pandemic with government alerts and removed YouTube videos urging people not to get treated. Twitter too highlighted official reports about what people should do when showing symptoms of Coronavirus. Whatsapp too has a limited number of forwarded messages. However, the menace of fake information has not greatly been curbed. Analysis shows that individuals who shared fake information have not made the fight easier. A source claim “people are sharing rumours, fake stories and half-truths about COVID 19 with each other” across platforms.
This gives a room for media literacy. What then does a person do to determine if a piece of information received from WhatsApp, either individuals or groups, should be shared or not? One, individuals should verify, verify and verify before sharing any piece of information. In doing that, it is said that one should determine the currency (timeliness of the information) of the piece before sharing. Two, people should determine the relevance (importance of the information to their needs) before forwarding or sharing. Three, the authority (the source of the information) should first be confirmed before the information is broadcast to contacts. Four, accuracy ( the reliability and truthfulness of the information) should as well be considered. Five, the purpose (the reason the information exists) should also be queried before forwarding the information to others.
In this period of the global pandemic and beyond, ensuring the people of the world stay sane is everybody’s duty. People are urged to do due diligence before forwarding messages they receive to others. Just like the pandemic itself, curbing the menace of fake and misinformation is a matter of how diligent individuals are before sharing received messages.