Myths are big and powerful feathers with which fake news and falsehood fly around societies. The purveyors of fake news seem to have realised this and are exploiting myths to perform their enterprise. Recall the difficulty we faced during the ebola challenge when several gullible persons carelessly consumed substances such as salt as a cure for the disease. There was, however, no scientific proof to establish the veracity of this claim. In truth, myths thrive during crisis and unrest, be it communal, social, religious or health-related. For instance, the coronavirus pandemic ravaging humanity and bringing the world to its knees appears to have become a fertile ground for myth-making that portends danger to society.
How does one rationalise the rate at which false and baseless news fly around, particularly within the social media space about the coronavirus? Since the outbreak, individuals and organisations have peddled false claims about treatment and cure for the virus, which scientists and medical experts have continued to refute.
Several media reports have recently credited some individuals with the ability to heal COVID-19 patients in a matter of days. Some of them went to the extent of recommending some concoctions for patients as medications. This trend prompted the World Health Organisation to publish what it called the “myth busters” as a way of protecting the vulnerable populace against misinformation. WHO stated, among other precautions, that adding pepper to soup or other meals does not prevent or cure COVID-19. It also said there is no evidence that house flies can transmit the virus. The global health agency said the disease could only spread through droplets from coughs, sneezes or saliva of infected persons.
WHO has equally warned that spraying and introducing bleach or disinfectants into the body WILL NOT protect one against COVID-19, but can instead be dangerous in that such substances can be poisonous if ingested and cause irritation and damage to the skin and eyes. What about drinking methanol, ethanol or bleach? WHO did not recommend drinking any of the substances, as doing so is extremely dangerous. According to the global health body, these items are poisons and swallowing them can lead to disability or even death. While they can be used to kill the virus on surfaces, they are not to be drunk because they are not friendly to human internal organs.
Perhaps, one of the hottest debates generated by COVID-19, especially in Nigeria, is on whether or not the 5G mobile networks spread the virus. This false claim, which has been debunked, is showing no signs of abating. Religion, which is the “opium of the people”, (a Karl Marx’s celebrated dictum), conferred some relevance on the subject matter as some famous, respected religious leaders used platforms available to them to preach against the 5G mobile networks, which they described as one of the subtle ways the anti-Christ is manifesting. Their adherents have been circulating the myth. But, WHO has clearly said that viruses cannot travel on radio waves or mobile networks. In contrast, we note how active cases of COVID-19 exist in several countries which do not even have 5G mobile networks.
One of the most mythical stories recently peddled via social media is the viral message of two persons (a driver and conductor) who were arrested by the police in Lagos for turning human beings to goats. The story trended on twitter, blogs, Facebook and several other news platforms.
On March 29, 2020, a Twitter user from Ikeja, Nigeria, known as Molecule Boy posted on his twitter handle, @HeisJayfred, a picture with a caption “Passengers in Ejigbo turned to goats after using hand sanitiser”. In the photo, two persons (purportedly the driver and his conductor) were laying on the ground with many people surrounding them. The goats were also visible from the picture. The post attracted two thousand and seventeen retweets and three thousand, five hundred and fifty-seven likes. Several comments with mixed feelings equally followed it.
Further, we noted how hand sanitisers were the foundational ingredient of this story. During this period, sanitisers had become one of the most sought-after commodities since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The sudden popularity of sanitisers and the rising cost of the product may explain the virality of sanitiser-related urban myths and readers’ susceptibility to its falsehood.
However, the fact that no credible medium published the story should ordinarily raise one’s antenna about its authenticity.
Furthermore, the Nigerian Police, through the Police Public Relations Officer, DSP Elkana Bala, in a telephone interview with the writer, dismissed the report as a blatant lie, which only existed in the imagination of the merchants.
For the fact that publication of fake news and mysticism has become lucrative, it is difficult to end it, particularly in the world of social media, which now enables virtually anyone to churn out unverifiable claims in the name of news. In truth, fake news and mythical beliefs seem to spread faster than accurate reports. This revelation is a wake-up call to practising journalists to up their games and be above peddlers of misinformation.
In all honesty, we need to bridge the gap between the time actors churn out fake news, and the time fact-checkers dismiss it as untrue. The reason for this demand is to limit the havoc such fake news wreak before fact-checkers verify. Thus, this burden rests on the shoulders of professional fact-checkers, now needed more than ever to reduce with timely counters the adverse impacts of fake and mystical stories on society.
It is also time for thousands of other media professionals to embrace the reality that fake news and myths are one of the biggest threats to our calling. Indeed, the harvest of fact-checking is ripe, but the harvesters are not in good supply. Therefore, it will not be out of place if every journalist becomes a fact-checker. When this happens, journalism would have reached its higher reach as the watchdog of society.