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Weekly Newsletter on the Ongoing Infodemic: May 4, 2020

8 mins read

In this article, we analysed posts that seemed to contain pieces of misinformation in circulation using CrowdTangle, Google Factcheck Explorer Tool, Facebook Fact-checking Tool and Tweetdeck, published between January and the end of April 2020 in Nigeria. Disclaimer: This article does not claim to have reviewed all viral contents within the timeframe, owing to limited time and resources.

Could understanding Covid-19 trends in Nigeria help you stay safe?

In Nigeria, mis- and dis-information preceded the virus. In January, there was no recorded case in the country; however, global news had slowly started to create a sense of impending doom in the minds of Nigerians. Over 3,157 posts on Facebook pages contained the words coronavirus, covid-19 or “colomavilus.” Twitter also recorded a similar feat in the last five days of January alone. Most of these posts centred on awareness of the pandemic (then considered an epidemic) or partisan views about the nature of the virus. Platform users with strong religious affiliations expressed sharp disdain for China who they believed “brought the plague” upon themselves to deflect attention for allegedly killing Muslims or banning the niqab.

Fake cures were not yet widespread; but by February, when the NCDC confirmed the first case, misinformation took on a life of its own, attacking the cells of the online society- just as the virus itself. Unsurprisingly, the WHO labelled the spread of fake news on the outbreak an “infodemic” which would only become worse in the following months. Unverified information about the origin, properties and transmission of the virus to death-causing preventive measures and bizarre conspiracies became prevalent.

To better understand the evolving phenomenon, fact-checkers around the world sought to categorise it based on the varied nature of the content, actors (fake news purveyors) create and share; the motivations of those who create this content; and the ways the said actors disseminate such material. After all, the saying goes, ”a problem understood is half solved.” 

As authorities tried to make sense of the novel coronavirus, the volume and diversity of misinformation grew from 3,157 posts containing the keywords on Facebook pages in January to 14,845 Facebook-posts in February; 114,066 posts in March; and 153,270 posts in April. There are no total numbers for Twitter, but it is highly probable that there has been an increase on that platform as well. While the total number of posts cannot be considered false, a large number of them turned out to be unverified at the time of publication. However, based on our analysis of the Nigerian situation, two distinct types of misleading content are emerging.

Fake news about the nature of the virus: Its origins, properties and transmission

Most of the viral claims, in reality, are seldom entirely wrong; there’s usually a foundation of truth from which all sorts of stories emerge. More so, the absence of real information at the outset of the outbreak led many people to fill the information gap with their theories and conspiracies.

For angry Nigerians, Chinese people who eat just about anything created this virus. And, the fact that the Chinese people were acting as racists towards Nigerians made matters worse. Viral videos emerged showing Chinese nationals “biting the heads off living frogs and eating the entrails of the frogs at China’s ‘wet market’ where coronavirus reportedly originated from,” according to an excerpt from a news headline. There’s no evidence to prove that this is a recent video or that the virus came from a frog as inferred in the post. Another article claims that a Chinese man was spotted eating a live bat and mouse. The accompanying video showed “a woman” eating a “cooked creature” that seemed to be a bat and another man eating a live rodent.

While anger may be a justifiable emotion in this situation, false information about the origin of the virus will not help scientists identify the exact source and develop vaccines that can prevent future deaths.

Other conspiracy theorists shared claims that the virus was either created by Bill Gates as part of his depopulation agenda (read more in this article) or by the Chinese government in a selfish bid to overthrow the United States. Or by the American government through the CIA as part of an economical hybrid war against China.

One of the most intriguing was the speculation that the nature of the virus and the composition of the African blood (skin) make Africans resistant to the virus. Actors premised their claims on a Cameroonian student who survived infection from the virus because of his blood. While such claims took Africa a while to pay adequate attention to the evolving global health crisis. Under the spell of this false claim,  it has gained recent cases of infections from the virus and resultant deaths in Nigeria to disprove this claim.

Closely linked to the above is false or misleading information about where the virus spreads and who spreads it. Again, people started by claiming that the virus couldn’t survive in hot weather, despite WHO’s decision to devote an entire webpage to debunk such myths. And a more malicious claim surfaced about a taxi driver threatening to spread the disease. The story was widely circulated on all platforms, disregarding the man’s safety.

Misleading content about treatment: Cures and preventive measures

Health care systems in the world are battling with the burden the pandemic has brought and are trying desperately to manage the crisis. So also are medical professionals, especially lab scientists who have devoted most of their lives to analysing a wide variety of specimens that identify and treat diseases. If after all the deaths, they cannot confirm a cure, why do we believe that particular food will do the job?

One would assume that Nigerians would have learned from the Ebola crisis; it seems not. With heightened fear and confusion, wrong information about cures and preventive measures have become the most common. Sadly, these can have real and immediate consequences.

Most of the garlic and salt-related claims combine both correct and false information. Garlic, the power-cure for the season, can lead to death by overdose, that is if we follow the prescription of the unidentified “Whatsapp doctor”. An immune-boosting food should not be likened to a cure or marketed as a drug that prevents the virus, whether mistakenly or for commercial purposes or social media popularity. For instance, this account lists several foods that can purportedly help you avert coronavirus; this was inaccurate.

While there is, some truth to the role of foods in building immunity, the consumption rests on the state of the individual, say, scientists. If you’re healthy, then taking supposed immune boosters may prove counterproductive. Moreover, no matter how good a particular food is, it shouldn’t be taken excessively as most of the claims suggest. Worse still, these messages could make people careless and flout other health recommendations such as maintaining a healthy lifestyle, sanitising and practising social distancing.

Similarly, on April 4th, a Nigerian newspaper reported how a Nigerian based in Ireland, John Obabola, who just tested negative for coronavirus, recovered. He purportedly used paracetamol, lemon, ginger and garlic to cure the disease. In the article, however, Obabola said he only survived the virus because he went in for treatment early enough and did not have underlying health issues.

Multiple videos viewed tens of thousands of times on Facebook also claimed that onions could prevent and even cure an infection of the novel coronavirus. The same video has been shared here, here and here. According to AFP, as of March 21, 2020, WHO had 48 candidate vaccines in the preclinical evaluation and two in the clinical assessment as a cure for COVID-19. None of the 50 candidates is onion, garlic or lemon. 

And then the claims about citrus fruits: from boiling the peels to the WhatsApp message that affirms that coronavirus has pH range 5.5 to 8.5, with which people can counteract infections from the virus by just consuming fruits to neutralise the pH activity. Or hot baths, hot hand dryers and any kind of heat, allegedly will suffice; not to mention, the allegation that constant sex kills coronavirus! Elsewhere, actors are peddling information that US scientists and other Nigerian scientists have created coronavirus vaccines. 

What is interesting about the range or intensity of covid-19 misinformation is that existing false narratives were rarely ever wholly fabricated. Most often, correct information was spun, twisted, recontextualised, or reworked, making it more difficult to question and more natural to appeal to our sentiments. With the Federal Government’s partial lifting of the lockdown, such wrong narratives should not be promoted so that people do not get comfortable with fake cures; or disregard safety requirements and end up infecting and killing others.

Coronavirus Q & A 

  • Why is coronavirus called covid19?

First of all, coronaviruses are not new. Coronavirus disease is the official term for members of a group of viruses known to cause respiratory infections in humans, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, COVID-19 is new, and the more scientific name is “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)” as named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), the body responsible for classifying viruses. The term COVID-19 is an abbreviation; ‘CO’ stands for ‘corona,’ ‘VI’ for ‘virus,’ and ‘D’ for disease and 19 for the year it occurred. So you can say “2019 novel coronavirus” or “COVID-19” if you like.

Fun fact: Coronaviruses are composed of genetic material surrounded by a round envelope that has protein spikes on the outside that resemble the spikes on a crown, the metal headgear worn by many monarchs across the world. “Crown” in Latin is “corona,” hence the name coronavirus.

  • When was coronavirus discovered?

Coronavirus was first discovered as an acute respiratory infection of domesticated chickens in the 1930s. Human coronaviruses were later discovered in the 1960s. Since 2003, at least 5 new human coronaviruses have been identified, including the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS), which also originated in China and caused significant morbidity and mortality. The most recent coronavirus (COVID-19) is traced to alleged patient zero who became ill on  December 1st 2019, although more evidence traces its existence back to as early as November 2019.

  • Has Madagascar found a cure?

Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina has recommended an organic medicine to cure COVID-19 patients in his country. ”All trials and tests have been conducted, and its effectiveness has been provided in reducing and eliminating symptoms from COVID-19 patients in Madagascar,” said the president. But the World Health Organization (WHO) in a statement has warned against any self-medication; also stating that no current medicine exists as a cure for COVID-19.

The presumed cure is a form of herbal tea called Covid Organics (CVO). Madagascar has 128 confirmed COVID-19 cases so far, with no deaths, and 82 recoveries. To determine if this is really a cure, we will need to observe the direct effects on the patients over time and after several post-treatment tests.

  • Will Coronavirus affect the stock market?

Most definitely. The more poignant question is how adverse the effect is or will be on the stock market. The stock market has taken significant hits as fears grow over how the coronavirus might wreak long-term economic havoc. In addition to a volatile stock market, global GDP growth has begun to slow in response to the outbreak, and oil prices have significantly decreased because of an oil glut. As unpredictable as the situation is, even in the most optimistic scenario, it is likely to have a material short-term impact on GDP growth, according to economists.

Tip of the week 

#FakeNews Alert 

There have been discussions on social media suggesting the death of the head of IPOB, Indigenous People Of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu. While some believe the story, others reject the current news. However, there has not been any credible report that supports the claim, which raises suspicions on its integrity. Besides, the source of this claim has a record of spreading misinformation. 

Do not share these messages without confirming from credible sources. If the news is true, it’s going to be on major news platforms in the country. 

Another Case of Sensational Headline! The message in this headline differs from the body of the story. This buttresses why you should not trust headlines, always read the entire text. Since the discovery of clickbait as a marketing tactic, online news platforms use misleading headlines to attract readers. Always read through an article and be sure its body texts agree with the headline. Also, cross-check with other credible sources; this takes a short time, I assure you!

Ebele Oputa is a frontline leader who helps organizations do new things or do existing things more efficiently. She has provided strategic, technical and programmatic oversight as well as editorial support of Dubawa since its inception. She is an experienced Programme Officer with a demonstrated history of working in the non-profit organization management industry including the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. Skilled in Negotiation, Training, Leadership, Project Management, and Strategic Communications, Ebele has a Master of Laws (LLM) focused on International Trade and Commercial Law from Durham University.

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