For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The friend from Ghana had nothing but the best intentions when he shared the eight pictures via WhatsApp. Along with the images, he wrote: “Take care.” Each picture included a message, white lettering on a gray background. For example: “If the virus is exposed to a temperature of 26-27⁰ C. it will be killed, as it does not live in hot regions.”
That, however, has not been medically proven. The rest of the message was likewise unhelpful in warding off the coronavirus: “Also drinking hot water and sun exposure will do the trick and staying away from ice cream and cold food is advised.” Above the message stood the initials UNICEF.
Fake notices with inaccurate medical advice such as this one are hardly a rarity. Indeed, they are currently spreading from person to person almost as rapidly as the virus itself. The World Health Organization (WHO) refers to the global misinformation problem as an “infodemic” and has pointed out that combatting its spread requires enormous resources, much like measures taken to control the outbreak of the virus itself. It means that aid organizations cannot just concentrate on providing resources to regions in need, they also have to fight to demonstrate their own credibility.
“It is consuming a lot of time here to combat such fake reports,” says Sandra Bisin, the 42-year-old spokeswoman for UNICEF in West and Central Africa. “The digital world is helping us massively to quickly reach many people. But at the same time, precisely that is dangerous because it gives others the ability to spread panic in the social networks.”
UNICEF is trying to combat the rumors by way of Twitter and so-called “myth buster videos” that they produce themselves. In Ivory Coast, UNICEF has established a coronavirus information center that promotes the sharing of credible information on symptoms, prevention measures and treatment – via text message if necessary. Those who send out the message CORONA receive a response with current updates.
The code and the number are being shared by radio and television broadcasters, influencers and government websites. Some 400,000 people have already made use of the service, with a further 14 million people having been sent a text message notifying them of the services provided by the center. Like several other international organizations such as WHO, UNICEF also works together with platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok to slow the daily flood of fake news. But even though social networks are continually deleting such posts, that doesn’t mean that they completely disappear.
The Danger of Corona Rumors
In Ghana, several bars and restaurants have posted the fake UNICEF information on their websites to reassure guests. Once the incorrect advisories are disseminated by trustworthy people or organizations and considered valid, they quickly begin spreading by word of mouth. There are many people in the country who are unable to read, and people tend to trust family, friends and neighbors much more than they do government agencies.
“Inaccurate information is extremely dangerous,” says Sandra Bisin.
Thus far, there is a relatively low number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Africa. Despite the fact that new ones pop up almost every day in an increasing number of African countries, it isn’t yet clear whether COVID-19 spreads as quickly in Africa as it does elsewhere – or whether the illness simply hasn’t yet been identified in many African countries. Many experts believe it is a race against time, and rumors don’t help given that it is extremely important that people take precautions or report their illness if they are experiencing symptoms to slow the spread of the disease.
The Potentially Fatal Consequences of Belief in Rumors
Among the most dangerous rumors is the claim that high African temperatures can protect residents from becoming infected or that the virus itself cannot survive in such conditions. That is a popular claim made by the inaccurate reports that have been circulating, but it is anything but a proven fact. Those who believe such misinformation, however, may be tempted to ignore pleas to take sensible measures such as frequent handwashing and avoiding large groups of people. The same holds true for the stubborn belief that people with black skin are immune to COVID-19. A majority of those who have tested positive for coronavirus in Africa thus far have traveled there from countries like Italy, Germany, France, Norway, Turkey, India and, of course, China.
The result is that foreigners on the streets of Ghana are no longer followed by calls of “obruni,” which is an old Akan word for “white person.” Instead, many yell out: “Corona go home!” And it’s not meant as a joke. Indeed, anger against white people has been mounting due to the belief that they are the ones bringing COVID-19 to Africa. And their anger is fueled by the false claims being distributed in social media.
There is, of course, no proof whatsoever that “black skin” or an “African gene” – as claimed in some erroneous posts and videos – protect people from contracting coronavirus. And believing such assertions could be deadly. The health ministries of many African countries have insisted that anyone exhibiting symptoms like sore throat, coughing, fever or stuffiness should call their country’s info hotline and promised that they will be visited and tested should it be deemed necessary. But for that strategy to work, those who come down with symptoms have to see themselves as potential patients rather than assuming they are immune because of their skin color or African origins.
Coronavirus, Fake News and Discrimination in Nigeria
“When it comes to background, we’re soon going to have a number of other problems as well,” says David Ajikobi. The 37-year-old journalist works for Africa Check, a website devoted to correcting inaccurate claims and other fake news. Ajikobe got started in 2016 as the first, full-time fact checker in Nigeria, where one of the four offices belonging to the South Africa-based non-profit organization is located.
“After the first COVID-19 case in Sub-Saharan Africa was discovered in Nigeria on Feb. 28, there was immediately a huge number of online rumors,” Ajikobe says. The most populous country in Africa is considered at risk due to its population density should it ultimately see an outbreak of the virus. Ajikobi believes that the risk is made worse due to the numerous different ethnic groups, religions and languages in the country.
“They could all easily fall prey to the panic that is continually being spread by fake news,” he says. “Already Chinese are being discriminated against and there are warnings circulating that they developed the coronavirus for evil purposes or that they are generally dirty people and that you should stay away from them. Such rumors, though, ultimately won’t just be limited to the Chinese. Suddenly, the Christian neighbor will be to blame, or the Muslim or the person from the other tribe or the person who doesn’t speak the local language.”
Ajikobe says that fake news spreads quickly even though many people in Nigeria don’t have a smartphone or can’t afford to purchase internet time. That is partly because local news outlets pick them up and then broadcast them on radio or television. “Then, the idiocy that some guy invented and shared with a thousand acquaintances is suddenly heard unfiltered by millions of people,” Ajikobe says.
“Our biggest problem here is that nobody wants to be the person who carried coronavirus into the village.”
Africa Check has developed a chatbot for WhatsApp, a text-based dialogue system called “Kweli,” which means “truth” in Kisuaheli. Users can send information to the bot to be checked for veracity. Furthermore, Ajikobi doesn’t just spend his days on finding as many false reports as possible and setting the record straight on social media. He also holds workshops to train journalists, university students and social workers to scrutinize information and to only disseminate those things that check out. And to convince people to allow themselves to be helped.
“Our biggest problem here is that nobody wants to be the person who carried coronavirus into the village,” says Ajikobi. “The village will grow furious extremely quickly and drive you out. That is why many showing COVID-19 symptoms don’t report to the emergency sites, preferring instead to follow obscure treatment recommendations that they saw or heard somewhere.”
Among the current corona-prevention myths in Africa is, for example, drinking bleach. That doesn’t help, of course, and could even be fatal. The treatment has been largely eliminated from Facebook, but the rumor has persisted nonetheless. “People do what they read in the internet. And they die from it,” the journalist says.
During the Ebola Epidemic, Saltwater Was Seen as the Cure
Ajikobi knows what he is talking about. When Nigeria was battling the Ebola epidemic in 2014, a rumor was spread via WhatsApp that saltwater could kill the virus. “People started hoarding salt like crazy,” he says. “At least two people died from drinking huge amounts of saltwater. Many others ended up in hospital with salt poisoning.”
Fake news is a problem everywhere in the world. Many countries are currently fighting the upswell of incorrect information and conspiracy theories about coronavirus being disseminated digitally. In Iran, 44 people died of alcohol poisoning last week, according to the state newswire IRNA. That came after a rumor began spreading that alcohol killed the coronavirus.
Kenya: Fines and Prison Sentences for Coronavirus Fake News
In many countries of Africa, organizations and governments are already overwhelmed just by the implementation of necessary precautionary measures and the establishment of isolation stations and laboratories. Health-care systems are weak in many countries and they are already facing a slew of other serious illnesses such as malaria, tuberculosis and Ebola.
“It is criminal to spread such malicious and alarmist statements through social and digital channels,” said Kenya’s government spokesman, Cyrus Oguna, in an early March statement. The government announced that such statements were being referred to a cybercrime unit for investigation. Officials have since announced that a first, fake-news arrest has been made in Kenya.
The government has said that those who are proven of having produced and/or disseminated fake news can expect up to two years in prison or a fine of up to 45,000 euros. The friend in Ghana could hardly believe it when he heard about the penalty: “Could you send that to me?”
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe about injustices in a globalized world, societal challenges and sustainable development. The features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appeared in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of SPIEGEL International. The project is initially planned to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is funding the project for a period of three years at a total cost of around €2.3 million.
No. The foundation exerts no influence whatsoever on the stories and other elements that appear in the series.
Yes. Large European media outlets like the Guardian and El País have similar sections on their websites — called “Global Development” and “Planeta Futuro,” respectively — that are likewise funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In recent years, DER SPIEGEL has complete two projects with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Journalism Centre (EJC): “Expedition BeyondTomorrow,” about global sustainability goals, and the journalist refugee project “The New Arrivals,” which resulted in several award-winning multimedia features on the issues of migrants and refugees.