Fake News & Corona
Fake News in Nigeria: A Complex Problem
The prevalence of fake news has made the fighting of diseases more complicated for Nigeria’s government and its healthcare sector.
As with many countries around the world, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has had to contend with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. A national lockdown declared by President Muhammadu Buhari in April to contain the spread of the virus first reported on February 27, dealt “heavy economic losses” on the country. According to the country’s statistics office, by the second quarter of 2020, the economy had undergone a 6.1% year on year contraction.
But economic losses were not Nigeria’s only problem during the pandemic: fake news became widespread and threatened to overshadow efforts to contain the spread of the virus. While clearly dangerous, it was not the first time fake news had interfered with Nigeria’s management of a contagious virus.
Back in 2014, when the Ebola virus hit Lagos State, the city’s healthcare team had to contend with the spread of misinformation regarding its prevention and treatment. A piece of fake news claiming Ebola could be prevented by drinking and bathing with salt water went viral. According to Symplur, a company that tracks health misinformation on Twitter, Nigerians began using the words “Ebola,” “salt,” “water” and “drinking” together in tweets from 2014 on August 4. Four days later, two persons were reported dead in Jos, the capital city of Plateau State. They had consumed an excessive amount of saltwater.
That experience may have been useful for Nigeria’s health authorities when the first coronavirus case was announced in Lagos this year, as it was apparent that outside of providing care for affected persons, it was necessary to provide factual information to the public while countering fake news.
Still, along with the government in neighbouring Ogun state, Lagos state’s authorities had to fend off a barrage of fake news. Mayowa Tijani, a fact-checker with AFP, says, “Fake news and long-standing trust issues affected the country’s response” to the coronavirus in the first few months of the pandemic.
Where six years ago, a misleading regimen for prevention went viral, this time, one of the first coronavirus-related fake news pieces was focused on the index case. On Facebook, a post claimed that the man who drove Nigeria’s first confirmed victim of the virus from Lagos to Ogun escaped from a hospital where he was receiving treatment after he, too, tested positive.
The author of the post uploaded a supposed photo of the driver, claiming his name was Adewale Isaac Olorogun. According to the post, Olorogun was demanding to be paid N100 million by the government before returning for treatment. The post went viral before authorities in Ogun State quashed the fake news.
Not long after, the country experienced a rise in demand for chloroquine, a drug that, years ago, Nigeria had discontinued for use in the treatment of malaria.
Speaking on the increased demand, Ore Awokoya, a senior aide to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos state, said it was the result of a statement from President Donald Trump of the US claiming that hydroxycholoroquine had been “approved” to treat COVID-19 by America’s Food and Drug Administration. Trump’s statement led to a boost in broadcast messages on WhatsApp declaring chloroquine as treatment for the coronavirus. And in Lagos, according to a national news report, at least two persons were hospitalised for chloroquine poisoning.
Such an incident raises a question: Why do people believe fake news stories and take actions based on recommendations from unauthorised figures and platforms? According to Tijani, this happens because people seek “alternative sources of hope” as there is a warped flow of information from the government to its citizens. In the specific case of the coronavirus, he says, the mainstream media’s focus on covering high-profile individuals led some to believe that the “disease was peculiar to the rich”.
Government’s Anti-coronavirus EffortsTo combat the spread of fake news in the coronavirus era, both private and public institutions dedicated resources to provide factual news online. Authorities in Lagos State and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control turned to social media, looking to provide factual news on the same platforms that abet the spread of misinformation.
The NCDC accounts on Twitter and Facebook provided authentic information on the spread of the novel virus. And several officials of Lagos State, including Governor Sanwo-Olu, used their mostly verified social media accounts to counter false narratives. Private bodies like Africa Check also contributed to providing verifiable information to Nigerians.
“When this whole thing began,” said the Commissioner for Information in Lagos State, Gbenga Omotoso, “we told the world not to get news from any unconfirmed source and the governor has been briefing the media from time to time. The spread of false information can cause panic [and] make people lose their balance.”
Solutions to a many-sided ProblemIn a country like Nigeria where religious and ethnic differences can be sources of conflict, facts and fictions are often deliberately blurred and spread via social media. This fuels “the spread of misinformation” says Andrew Ibeh, head of The Guardian newspapers’ social media team.
Ibeh’s comment suggests that fighting the problem of fake news is a challenge in Nigeria because of the highly democratised nature of social media platforms, given that they allow anyone put out information without vetting. And with 203.5 million active mobile phone lines, over 20 million people on social media and about 80 per cent of the population using WhatsApp, the problem of fake news in Nigeria is quite a significant one.
“In a multicultural and multireligious setting like Nigeria, the role misinformation could play in causing ethnic and religious crises is huge,” said David Ajikobi at a conference on fake news organised by the Goethe Institut in 2019. Ajikobi is the Nigeria editor of Africa Check.
To reduce the spread of misinformation, last year, the government partnered with Facebook to halt the spread of misinformation during the general elections. This year, the Nigerian Government is considering a regulation of social media after a bill to that effect was submitted to the senate. There are fears, however, that the government may stifle dissent and free speech if the bill is passed into law.
Instead of creating a new law, what Nigeria needs is the enforcement of existing laws, says Adeboye Adegoke, senior programme manager at the pan-African digital rights organisation Paradigm Initiative.
“What we must not do in the circumstances is create a new law to address this,” he says. “If we truly care about justice, then it won’t be hard to see that this problem can be addressed without derogating from constitutionally guaranteed rights.”
For Ajikobi, it is necessary that journalists first rise above their personal biases and then arm themselves with skills to differentiate between facts and fictions. They must “consider the source, check the author, check supporting sources, check the date, confirm if it is a joke, check [for] biases and ask the experts.”
Another idea worth contemplating might come from beyond Nigeria’s borders. Countries such as Brazil, Mexico and the United Kingdom now have a magnifying glass icon for more information on messages forwarded at least five times on WhatsApp. Such a feature, says tech entrepreneur Joel Popoola, will be an important differentiator in Nigeria’s fight against fake news, considering the “comparatively low levels of digital literacy in our nation.” He adds that Nigeria needs “social media companies to take the necessary steps to protect their users from fake news and harmful half-truths.”
Nonetheless, while social media companies deliberate on the possibility of such a solution in Nigeria, it is also necessary that programmes enabling more people to become aware of the dangers of misinformation are created.
One such programme has been launched by the Goethe-Institut through the PASCH Initiative. In September, the programme trained 20 students from Akin Ogunpola Model College, Akinale and Corona Secondary School, Agbara on using digital tools to verify information found online.