Pandemic And Infodemic: Coronavirus And Fake News in Africa
Updated: May 20
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads and panic consumes the world, the proliferation of dis/misinformation around it is a cause for alarm too. African nations have to date reported a low number of confirmed cases of infection but are faced with a tide of fake news. Many governments have responded by threatening to prosecute individuals spreading misinformation. The World Health Organisation is concerned about what it calls a “pernicious infodemic'' as misinformation seems to be spreading faster than the rate of infection in Africa.
South Africa has enacted a state of emergency and this week gazetted regulations which prohibit fake news or publication with the intention to deceive regarding coronavirus, the infection status of anyone or any measure undertaken by government to address the pandemic. Conviction of these is punishable by a fine or 6 months imprisonment and other penalties.
The Botswana government is also grappling with misinformation, and expressed its concern about the volume of misleading information circulating on social media and has appealed to citizens to scrutinise the source of their information and to refrain from spreading information that is “misleading and distressing”.
Kenyan government spokesperson, Cyrus Oguna, this week stated that the government was determined to confront “'fallacies'' being spread and he warned of prosecution and stiff penalties for guilty parties. Oguna added that cases have already been forwarded to the cybercrime unit and prosecuting authority, with arrests to follow. Under the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act anyone convicted of intentionally publishing false information is liable for a fine and/or imprisonment of up to 2 years. This week a man was arrested and charged with spreading false information that causes panic.
In Nigeria, Facebook has implemented a fact-checking pilot project to address misinformation on the pandemic. Initiatives include screening advertisements for the WHO and the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control as part of an education campaign on Facebook Nigeria. AfricaCheck, a South African fact-checking organisation, is monitoring and combating misinformation propagated in local languages as part of Facebook’s efforts in Nigeria. The platform has also banned adverts for products purporting to cure or protect against infection and there is a temporary ban on adverts selling face masks.
The advent of coronavirus has been accompanied by a worrying volume of misinformation which only hinders efforts to tackle the pandemic. The Washington Post notes that more than 2 million conspiracy theory tweets were posted over a 3 week period spanning February and March which is alarming given that lives are at risk and also considering the importance of people responding appropriately to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. While the world is preoccupied with fighting the pandemic, it is vital that the infodemic is contained as this is also important for saving lives.
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