COVID-19: Opinion – Fear the fake news that spreads like wildfire and hurts us all

 By Peter Burdin

Fake news and scams have risen dramatically since the outbreak of the Coronavirus. As the number of Coronavirus deaths increases every day around the world – so has the number of conspiracy theorists and hoaxers seeking to use social media to exploit or profit from this terrible crisis.

Populations desperate for news and potential vaccines have clicked their way into a minefield of lies, false information and deliberately malicious posts designed to undermine society’s best efforts for whatever reason.

This deepening addiction to “hearsay” or “gists”, as Nigerians would say, has been mounting rapidly in Africa in recent years as the power of social media grows. And these weeks of lock down and national emergencies have created an eager audience keen to share the latest rumours.

In many ways we’re facing a fake news pandemic which festers alongside the global health pandemic and feeds off it.  And it’s also costing thousands of lives.

Now so much fake news activity has switched onto WhatsApp it’s increasingly easy to share and difficult to track or pin down the source of this misinformation. To make matters worse, it is often deliberately undermining government actions for political gain, or for profit by spreading fear and trashing commercial rivals.

According to Kroll’s annual fraud report some 84% of businesses feel threatened by fake news about their products. It’s particularly worrying for African businesses where the practice of targeted misinformation designed to harm a company’s reputation has been more acutely weaponised than on any other continent.

In South Africa, fake news went viral that a company’s covid-19 testing swabs were infected and were being used to spread the virus. That was quickly debunked by the Eastern Cape Health Department but how much damage had already been done to that company’s reputation. And how many people will believe it and refuse to be tested in the future?

There are also widely-shared posts claiming that African people are being used as guinea pigs to test a new Coronavirus vaccine. Such claims are false – there is no vaccine for Covid-19 and only a few tests are taking place, and none of them in Africa.

The danger is sometimes people want to believe this kind of misinformation and it goes viral – and without proper counter measures the damage is lasting. Bad reputations are easy to get but hard to shake off – and in the corporate world that can be the difference between prospering and bankruptcy.

The global pandemic has presented opportunities for criminals. A group of scammers in Nigeria have tried to profit from the desperate shortage of protective face-masks. They’ve been exposed for trying to sell hundreds of thousands of them online – the only problem is they don’t actually have any masks, they only want to take your money and run. Apparently people have lost millions already to these online tricksters.

Corporate entities across the world are familiar with the impact of fake news, with many firms being damaged by misinformation.  A prominent case in Nigeria was an attempt to hit the Nigerian Immigration Service and Contec Global, a multi-sector technology and sustainability firm which assists the Nigerian government to deliver its resident permits and process fees. Fake News was spread that the fees for the permits were to be increased without approval, almost certainly generated by individuals or companies who felt they would be disadvantaged by any increase.

Facebook has attempted to tackle such attacks by going local in their fact checking efforts. Their third party fact-checking program in partnership with Africa Check, an independent fact-checking organisation has expanded into Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa in Nigeria, Afrikaans, isiZulu, Setswana, Sotho, Northern Sotho and Southern Ndebele in South Africa, Swahili in Kenya and Wolof in Senegal. It is technology firms like Contec Global and Facebook that are well placed to provide successful solutions for turning the tide against this flood of fake news.

At this time of this global pandemic, it’s understandable that people are desperate for news, however, it’s important that people learn to distinguish between what is true and what is an attempt to deceive, frighten or profit from their anguish. Frankly it’s not always easy to tell the difference.

We need more honest journalism in Africa that audiences can trust to help create a healthier media environment and provide concrete tools to identify fakery and demand greater transparency.

We can all start by remembering the proverb: “If it sounds too good to be true – it probably is.”  

Peter Burdin, is a former BBC Africa Bureau Chief

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