With nearly 600 confirmed coronavirus cases across Africa, public anxiety and safety fears are proving fertile ground for the spread of misinformation.
But just as they deal with testing, diagnosing and treating patients, some governments on the continent are also being deliberate about pushing back against false information.
South Africa’s national health department has set up a WhatsApp support service to provide information to locals. The automated service shares information ranging from symptoms, prevention tips and testing information to users after a keyword prompt. Crucially, it also dispels growing myths about cures, from eating garlic to taking hot water baths, and sensitizes about possible scams looking to take advantage of the public’s fears. While it offers citizens a credible source for information, South Africa authorities are also penalizing anyone spreading coronavirus-realted misinformation with six-month jail terms and fines.
While not government-sanctioned, a similar service in Senegal operated by volunteers is sharing official information from the country’s health ministry via a chat-bot.
The choice of WhatsApp as a tool for fighting misinformation is not coincidental given its widespread use across Africa. In fact, WhatsApp has become so popular, even knock-off versions of the app are used more frequently than Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter in Africa’s largest internet markets.
The sheer scale of these app’s popularity has often posed a problem with the spread of misinformation that proves harmful especially in times of significant public distress. In Nigeria, for instance, WhatsApp broadcasts prescribing phony coronavirus cures and self-check methods have already gone viral.
Similarly false viral messaging about salt water baths being a cure for Ebola spread during the 2014 epidemic across parts of West Africa. Despite health authorities officially debunking the cure, two people died and several others were hospitalized over excessive salt consumption.
While misinformation is a problem globally, there have long been concerns anything that enables or encourages citizens in African countries to act in contradiction to the advice of public health authorities could help the virus spread much more quickly and very easily overwhelm the weak health systems of countries, particularly those in Sub Saharan Africa.
For their part, social media giants are also stepping up to combat misinformation among African users. Facebook has announced a fact-checking pilot in Nigeria to tackle coronavirus-related misinformation. But in recognition of the fake news problem its sister service copes with, Facebook will use WhatsApp to garner fast-spreading misinformation and then supply fact-checked information.
In addition, Facebook will also allow Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organization run banner adverts and coronavirus campaigns in Nigeria. In contrast, the social media platform will not allow any adverts of products that claim to prevent or cure coronavirus.
Twitter is also activating extra features on its platform in African markets in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. The service has launched a dedicated Covid-19 search prompt which amplifies credible information by ensuring that users see tweets local health authorities and officials at the top of their feed when searching for coronavirus-related information, rather than possibly wrong but viral tweets from other users. The service is now live in Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco.
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