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Doubting Covid-19 Data: An Analysis of Comments on NCDC Daily Tweets on Rising New Confirmed Cases

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Summary

With the recent hike in the number of new covid-19 infections, there are concerns about a possible second wave. However, many believe the rising numbers are simply a hoax by the government to suit their agenda. In this piece, we analysed Twitter users’ comments to the daily updates tweets of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). Our analysis was limited to comments doubting the accuracy of the official figures. NCDC’s deactivation of general users’ replies on its handle did not help matters. Our analysis suggests a general lack of trust in the authorities with users making their own conclusions and formulating conspiracy theories suggesting the numbers are deliberately being manipulated by the government.  This should be a cause for concern for relevant stakeholders. There should be strategic and sustained effort to limit the misinformation in the public space to overcome the ravaging pandemic and the sister “infodemic”. 

Introduction

In the past couple of months, many regions of the world have experienced a surge in covid-19 infections leading to a second wave of the covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, Africa has been relatively less affected despite having over 300,000 active cases, 2.4 million total confirmed cases, and almost 57,000 confirmed deaths in the region as at mid-December.  Nigeria appears to have fared relatively well in this pandemic, while staying below 70,000 up till Dec 7, 2020 despite the surge experienced months earlier. Experts have however warned that the numbers may not be reflective of the true rate of infections due to the country’s limited testing capacity.   

Nigeria may now be on its way to a second surge in covid-19 infection.  Since early December, 2020, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control has been reporting rising new Covid-19 infections leading to significant rise in the number of confirmed cases in the country.  It recorded almost 800 cases of new infections on December 11, 2020, a significant rise from the roughly 100 to 200 average frequently reported weeks earlier. The 796 new cases reported on December 11 was the highest recorded since the beginning of the outbreak in Nigeria. The spike is well visualised in the epidemiological curve updated on the agency’s website.

 

The NCDC, in its weekly epidemiological reports also provides weekly updates on new confirmed cases. This provides a clearer perspective of trends in new infections. The changes are more consistent in the weekly curve. During the weeks under review, the NCDC reported a sharp rise in new confirmed cases for COVID-19 Epi Week 49 spanning November 30th to December 6th 2020, and Week 50, spanning Dec 7th to December 13th. The cases rose from 1,029 new infections in preceding week 48 to 1,843 in week 49 and jumped to 3,918 in Week 50.

The increasing numbers have pushed the NCDC to increase its sensitisation campaigns on its online platforms, such as on Twitter, and also offline. NCDC is increasingly sensitising citizens to #TakeResponsibility, and has issued a fresh public health advisory requesting public adherence to basic COVID-19 safety guidelines.  

As part of its sensitisation efforts, the NCDC posts daily updates on coronavirus infections on its websites and social media handles.  In this analysis, we examined public reactions to the recent spike in cases on the agency’s daily tweets of newly confirmed cases. For reason(s) best known to the Agency, users are blocked from posting replies to its Tweets. This has however not stopped Nigerians from adding their voice and expressing their views on the rising cases on the agency’s Twitter handle. Many used the retweeting options to add their comments before retweeting the daily update posts.

Comments varied widely comprising the good, the bad; from those genuinely concerned about the rising data to those who outrightly dismissed them. Many concerned Nigerians decried the rising COVID-19 cases with many urging citizens to #TakeResponsibility; and for the government to promptly act to curb the rising trend before it becomes too late.  The critics were also very active with diverse views and opposing perspectives.  

Method

In the analysis below, we explored NCDC daily tweets on COVID-19 case updates for December 1 to 14, on the agency’s verified Twitter handle @NCDCgov.  During this period the country recorded fluctuating numbers of new COVID-19 infections ranging from 122 confirmed cases recorded on Dec 2 to 796 cases recorded on December 11.  In selecting samples for the analysis, we first did a purposive sampling of the tweet on the largest number of new infections, December 11. And then randomly sampled three other tweets from the 14 day study period. Hence, all comments included in retweets of the Agency’s daily updates for December 1, 7, 8, and 11 were qualitatively analysed for this piece. The analysis is limited to comment contesting the released data. Details of the analysed tweets are presented in the table below.

Sampled DateReported New CasesRetweets with commentsRetweets without commentsTotal Retweets & Comments
101/12/202028163171234
207/12/202038941151192
308/12/20205506354521,087
411/12/202079611046661770

Analysis

Based on our analysis of public retweets doubting the reported data, we identified eight categories of reactions. This included tweets expressing outright denials, abuses of relevant authorities, jests, conspiracy theories, and complacency. Others were critical of the reported numbers, NCDC’s deactivation of reply option to its tweets, while others simply digressed, calling for accountability for the Lekki shootings.

‘Scamdemic’: The Denials

A recurring view among the analysed comments is the recurring denials, with many still suggesting the non-existence of COVID-19 especially in Nigeria. One of the users described the situation as “Scamdemic,” in a spiteful attempt to add to the growing lexicon emerging from the current pandemic. Many simply dismissed the numbers being released describing them as “fake and fraud”

Many remained adamant suggesting the authorities have ulterior motives, deliberately “inflating” the data to claim “there is a second wave,” thus insisting “government is the coronavirus we have in Nigeria, there is no coronavirus anywhere in Nigeria.”

Yabis’ galore

Yabis here is used to describe abusive comments in the retweets. Many users used the platform to express their frustrations and outrightly vent their anger with deluge of insults on the authorities, the NCDC and its officials. One user wrote “ u (you) idiots, there is a vaccine already in the market. You are here broadcasting live scores. Nonsense”. Another cursed, “God punish una (you) with photoshop numbers.”

Jests, Trivialisation

Many disregarded the seriousness of the issue and simply turned comical, virtually laughing off the rising numbers and often including laughter emojis in their tweets. One user described the daily tweets as “Super Story” relating the released figures to the popular Nigerian television drama series.  

Conspiracy theorists

Many of the comments portray a general lack of trust in the government.  Many expressed varied conspiracy theories on government motives for projecting the rising numbers.  Among the conspiracy theories reported Covid-19 rising data being used, as cover-up for corruption, to prevent resurgence of #EndSARS protest, justify possible lockdown, and perhaps also the country’s Covid-19 vaccine demand from the international community.

Corruption

Top on the claims is corruption with many believing that the supposed Covid-19 outbreak in Nigeria is simply an avenue for government officials to siphon public funds. Users disrescribed the released rising data as “money making machine using Covid-19 as cover up” and as an attempt to “enjoy second wave money”.

Preventing #EndSARS protests resurgence

Some expressed views suggesting government was deliberately manipulating the figures to justify prevention of future #EndSARS protests, and also to probably link the rising Covid-19 cases to the large gatherings that characterised the nationwide protests that occurred in October. Some therefore reject the alleged government scheme remaining resolute to the cause. One user asked “Hope you guys are not deliberately exaggerating this in order for government to use is as a reason why second wave of #EndSARS protests should not hold?” Another wrote “What’s happening in Abuja? If it’s to scare #EndSARS activities, the the figures won’t work”

Lockdown Justification

Many also argued that the government might be inflating the numbers of COVID-19 cases to justify another likely lockdown which was mostly frowned upon. Some also regarded the rising number as a ploy by the government to shut down Christmas and New Year festivities. A user observed that “Overnight, viruses have started to wave up again. NCDC Naija, forget f**king lockdown”. Others lamented “they want to cancel December concerts” to prevent Nigerians from enjoying Christmas.”

Vaccine Acquisition ploy?

With the global race by governments around the world to acquire COVID-19 Vaccine, there are concerns that poorer nations could remain at the mercy of global giants in getting the vaccines for their citizenry. Many users reacting to NCDC’s tweets on the increasing number of covid-19 infections in the country therefore suggested that the country is deliberately hiking the numbers to justify its vaccine acquisition bid. Many went satirical noting “How do we get the vaccine for free? Increase the figures”. That way, “other nations can see us and donate vaccines  to us”, they mused.

Critiquing the numbers

Some Twitter users were critical of the numbers being released, wondering how the data were generated. There were particular references to data reported on specific states, particularly Lagos and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja. A user wondered how 123 could be reported for Lagos on a particular day, dismissing it as too “generic,” noting they could have reported “132… or 124, (to) make it look real”. Others wondered why some states are reportedly having high numbers of new infections or reporting few or no new daily infections. Some users however expressed concern that the figures might be much higher than being reported, citing the country’s testing capacity. One of such users wondered “796 new cases reported. How many unreported?”

The Lekki shooting cankerworm

The Lekki shootings is seeming to be a thorn in the flesh of Nigerian government with some Twitter users making repeated reference to the unanswered questions from the unfortunate incidence of October 20, 2020. Such users asked “Who ordered the Lekki shooting? to challenge the government to “count the fallen heroes of the Lekki massacre” if they wish to remain relevant. 

Complacency

There also appears to be a general apathy towards Covid-19 among which many express disregard for the data being reported. It appears the relatively low severity of the Covid-19 infections in Nigeria might be contributing to the apathy and fuelling misinformation on the pandemic among Nigerians.  One twitter user hinted on the low fatality of Covid-19 in the country, “So a 1.6% death rate” probably to dismiss the potential threat of the rising cases.  Many thus dismiss NCDC’s tracking and reportage of the daily updates. Others simply dismissed the numbers claiming “nobody cares,” urging the authorities to find a better pastime as they should be “tired of cooking this burnt plantain.”

Blocked replies

Many users were displeased with NCDC’s decision to restrict access to the reply option on its Twitter handle.  That seems to have further dented the agency’s credibility rating among users. Many questioned NCDC’s decision to “mute comment,” wondering what the government is doing about public gatherings, “if this figure is really true.” One user wrote, “So @NCDCgov blocked me from replying to their scores. It has been a lie and will ever remain lies to Nigeians, who don’t know who was infected, except their cronies who are their agents in manipulation. There’s COVID-19, but not in Nigeria like they claimed.” 

Conclusion

In this analysis of public opinion on a possible second wave, our findings suggest that Nigerians have limited trust in the government and its agencies. Despite the severity of the situation and the need for everyone to take responsibility in halting the spread and ending the coronavirus pandemic, many continue to deny its existence, throwing caution to the wind and formulating conspiracy theories suggesting the government is deliberately hiking the numbers. Many of the counter arguments appear illogical, making one wonder about the rationale for such reasoning. For instance, it is surprising that Nigerians would even imagine the government would deliberately inflate Covid-19 data since governments probably have more to lose than gain from imposing restrictions on free movement of people. The country is already in a recession and another lockdown could spell doom for the already stretched economy. 

These countering views expressed by Nigerians should therefore be a great concern for the government and communication strategists in winning the war against COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting infodemic. Efforts in combating public misinformation on COVID-19 needs to strategically address people’s concerns and prejudices. As evidenced in this study, attempting to shut down criticism may be counter productive, especially in today’s social media age. Today’s social media’s savvy audiences will simply find alternative means to air their views irrespective of any official discountenance. 

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