The novel coronavirus outbreak has led to a global pandemic that disrupts lives in ways previously unimaginable. An increasing cause for concern is the accompanying infodemic with various forms of unverified information being peddled about the virus and the resulting pandemic. Fact checking sites (e.g. Dubawa, AfricaCheck, Snopes) have been at the forefront of countering such misinformation, often creating a reference link for all covid-19 related fact checks on their websites.
In this piece, I examine the focus of covid-19 related fact-checked stories published on Dubawa since the outbreak of the pandemic. The objective is to examine the patterns of coverage of the covid-19 infodemic on the fact-checking platform. Using the coronavirus link on Dubawa to extract all stories published on covid-19, I have extracted 92 stories from the link. Of these, 2 articles unrelated to the pandemic were first eliminated from the study. I further removed the general covid-19 misinformation articles and the newsletters to limit our analysis to coronavirus-specific fact-checked stories. This resulted in 60 mainstream covid-19 fact checks which were all analysed for this piece.
I conducted a content analysis of these stories using an open ended coding guide. I identified variables relevant to the study. These include: date, title, author, claim source, verdict, source link, content, target, issue, entity, tool and notes. There are no predefined options to choose from. I read through each article and recorded appropriate terms to code content of a story for each variable examined. Some of these categories were later harmonised based on similarities.
The analysed fact checks span February, 2020 to July, 2020. This covers the early stages of the pandemic when the severity of the covid-19 outbreak was increasingly alarming, culminating in the recent viral video of the dramatic outburst of the controversial Nigerian-trained US based medical doctor.
The coronavirus factchecks featured claims produced in varied communication formats. The claims are sometimes published in various formats. Half of the verified claims were embedded in plain written text as shown in Table 1. Contents labelled as text only refer to those with the verified claims embedded in the written texts irrespective of any supporting image. The texts are sometimes combined with images or video to support the claims highlighted in the text and vice versa. Images and blog posts are other leading forms of presentation of covid-19 claims fact-checked on Dubawa. Other less occurring formats are video, audio, speech, and webpage.
Table 1: Formats of presentation of covid-19 claims verified on Dubawa
|Presentation Formats||Frequency||Percentage||Cumulative Frequency|
|Text & Image||5||8||83|
|Text & Video||3||5||88|
|Others (Audio 1, Speech 1, Webpage 1)||3||6||100|
Majority of the analysed fact checks were published in the first half of the study period. Seven out of every 10 analysed fact checks were published during this period. The highest percentage was published in March, 28%, followed closely by April with 25 percent, and February with 17 percent. Collectively, the three months amassed 70 percent of the published fact-checks on coronavirus-related claims on Dubawa. The remaining months (May 13%, June 7% and July 10%) had only a 30 percent inclusion rate.
Table 2: Monthly distribution of covid-19 fact checked stories on Dubawa
Circulation platforms for misinformation
WhatsApp is noted as the most popular social media platform in Nigeria. The popularity of the platform affords millions of Nigerians the opportunity to share information. Unlike other platforms, it is also popular among the older population, who have been accused of innocently using it to spread fake news. This study found WhatsApp as the lead source of covid-19 misinformation items on Dubawa. Other leading sources of the covid-19 claims verified on Dubawa were Facebook and other blog sites. Some claims trend ‘across different social media platforms’ and these were separately coded in the study. Occasionally, some media reports also feature suspicious claims warranting fact-checking. Out of the five fact-checked media reports, two were proclaimed to be false, another two considered misleading as their screaming headlines were not supported by the body of the reports. Another provided insufficient information to justify the claim made. Public officers’ speech was the least source of claims fact-checked in the study.
Table 3: Sources of COVID-19 claims fact-checked on Dubawa
|Across social media platform||7||12|
|News media reports||5||8|
|Public Officer’s speech||3||5|
‘False’ as most occurring verdict
Fact-checking usually entails issuing verdicts on verifiable claims. This was found as a core element of fact checks analysed in the study. All items analysed in the study had a verdict except one. These verdicts were certified ‘false’ or ‘mostly false’ confirming fact-checkers’ suspicions of specific Covid-19 claims making rounds. Few were rated ‘misleading’, with rare occurrence of a ‘true’ verdict and another one with ‘insufficient evidence’ to arrive at a conclusion.
Table 4: Verdict on covid-19-related fact-checked stories on Dubawa
Availability of evidence
Fact-checks also feature webpage links or other evidence of claims being verified. This study examines the availability or otherwise of original sources of covid-19 claims verified on Dubawa. All the analysed fact checks in the study, except one, included documented evidence allowing readers to see the original claims being fact-checked. Thirty-six (60%) of the provided claims links of analysed fact-checks were available. Ten of the source links (17%) were not available as the links failed to open at all. It was observed that the claims on WhatsApp were mostly embedded in the fact-checks with screenshots of the message. Thirteen of the analysed fact checks showed the claim using screenshot. Most of the WhatsApp evidence in support of claims were provided with a screenshot of the claim. This was probably adopted for WhatsApp due to the nature of the platform.
Table 5: Availability of source link in fact-checked stories
Depending on the kind of information or their dissemination platforms, the available links sometimes open but the content of the claim has been blocked and flagged as ‘false information’. I found this mostly with Facebook posts. It reflects recent policies of social media giants on misinformation. Also the provided links might pose some risks to the user as they are sometimes phishing websites fraudulently urging users to provide personal details at users’ risk. I found an example of phishing in the fact-checked claim that Nigerian government was set to disburse N30,000 to citizens as Covid-19 lockdown funds? Another characteristic of these links, especially blog sites, is that the reported claims are often poorly written, immediately prompting skepticism of their authenticity. Also some of the reported ‘fake news’ on the blog sites still had ‘more details soon’ months after posting the screaming unverified claims as breaking news.
The verified claims were mostly issue-based (83%, n=50), while others targeted entities which could be specific to individuals, public officials/organisations, private organisations, international bodies such as World Health Organization (WHO), etc. The issues presented in the verified claims varied widely, ranging from prevention myths to quick cures. Issues such as travel ban, official policies, etc. are among the least verified covid-19 claims on Dubawa.
Table 6: Issues in COVID-19 claims verified by Dubawa
|Vaccine (Vaccination, trial)||2||4|
Fact checking tools used
Commonly used fact-checking tools found among the published fact checks are audio tracing, interviews or contacting key actors or experts on the topic of discourse, cross referencing, reverse image search using google, Tineye and Yandex , CrowdTangle, and Linktally. The most commonly used procedure was cross referencing which entails scrutinizing the information, finding verifiable facts or evidence to prove the accuracy or otherwise of the claim.
In examining the focus of coverage of coronavirus on Dubawa, WhatsApp and Facebook appear to be the dominant platforms through which misinformation on coronavirus is mostly spread in Nigeria. Based on findings presented above, misinformation on potential cure and prevention are more frequently shared on these platforms. Relatedly, Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp, has a stipulated policy to limit the spread of covid-19 misinformation and harmful contents across its platforms. However, some claims can have costly consequences, proclaiming unwholesome practices, and could have gone viral before they are taken down.