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

Related Content

Coronavirus – Africa: We will not defeat COVID-19 without including Africa in the global response (By Winnie Byanyima and John Nkengasong)

By Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS and John Nkengasong, Director of Africa Center for Disease Control and Prevention In much of the global COVID-19 conversation, Africa is barely mentioned. But the risks which the COVID-19 crisis brings are even greater in Africa than elsewhere – and those risks will be compounded if Africa is marginalized in the global response. Beating COVID-19 in Africa, in turn, is essential for beating it worldwide. African leadership and global solid

Coronavirus – Nigeria: COVID-19 Situation Report for Nigeria (24 May 2020)

The COVID-19 Nigeria situation report for 24th May, 2020 has been published. Our daily COVID-19 situation reports provide a summary of the epidemiological situation & response activities in Nigeria. Download via: by APO Group on behalf of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).Media filesDownload logo

Coronavirus – Nigeria: Ramadan Kareem – Ramadan Felicitations from the Honourable Minister of Health and Honourable Minister of State, Health

Download logoThe Honourable Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire on behalf of himself, the Honourable Minister of State, Dr. Olorunnimbe Mamora, and the Management of Federal Ministry of Health hereby extend hearty felicitations to all Staff, Health Care Workers especially our Muslim Colleagues, and indeed to all Muslims on the occasion of the completion of this year’s Ramadan fasting. Ramadan Kareem. The Honourable Minister, while also wishing Muslims happy Sallah Celebrations,

Op-Ed – Uzoma Dozie: How Nigerians can unlock their potential in the digital age

Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up for free newsletters and get more CNBC AFRICA delivered to your inbox

More from CNBC Africa

What Happens To Unspent Gift Cards?

Americans love gift cards. The plastic cash substitute has been the most popular holiday item on shoppers’ lists for 13 years in a row, as of 2007. In 2019 alone, U.S. consumers spent close to $98 billion on gift cards from brands like Starbucks, A

Curro opens its online doors to educate learners during COVID-19

Many parents are anxious about sending their kids back to school next week with the risk of Covid-19 infections in the classrooms quite high. Similarly, the risk of compromising the academic year by keeping kids at home until a treatment or cure is found is equally as high. Private school group Curro has launched an online schooling platform to help parents keep their kids educated and safe. Andries Greyling, CEO of Curro joins CNBC Africa for more.

Covid-19: WFP, YouTube partner to tackle food insecurity in Africa

Covid-19 disruptions to global supply chains have raised the alarm around food insecurity in Africa, with millions of people at risk of plunging further into poverty. To help the continent feed itself throughout the crisis streaming platform YouTube has partnered with the World Food Programme and UNICEF to raise funding. That’s as Africa works on a sustainable plan for food production, which includes reducing its reliance on food imports. Alex Okosi, Managing Director for Emerging Markets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa at YouTube joins CNBC Africa for more.

Op-Ed – Uzoma Dozie: How Nigerians can unlock their potential in the digital age

Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.

Trending Now

Protecting Africa’s progress during the COVID-19 pandemic

As of the 24th of May, Africa had a total of 107,412 confirmed Covid-19 cases, with 42,626 recoveries and 3,246 deaths. CNBC Africa’s Kenneth Igbomor explores ways to protect Africa’s progress during the Covid-19 pandemic with Dr.Vera Songwe, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, Dr. John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control & Prevention and Edwin Ikhuoria, Africa Executive Director of the One Campaign....

How Africa can corner a tenth of the world battery metals market – if being brave favours Fortune!

“I can say, do we have a good business: yes. Are we in distress? No. We have a lot of work to do things are going to get worse before they get better.”

African artists donate their vocals to support COVID-19

While big business has used its deep pockets to contribute towards Covid-19 related aid, musicians are using their voices. Artists from across the continent have teamed up to create a song to help governments drive important messaging around Covid-19 and to encourage citizens to play their part in limiting the spread of the virus. Two of the artists on the song, South African rapper Riky Rick and Zimbabwean born Sha Sha join CNBC Africa for more....

How Covid-19 is shaping Africa’s prospects

This time last year Africa was celebrating the milestone that free trade on the continent would soon be a reality. Prior to Covid-19, the free trade Africa deal was due to be implemented on the 1st of July. Africa Day this year is, however, less joyful as the continent grapples with the prospect of deep recession and in some parts, depression with the coronavirus health crisis fast muted into an economic and financial one. Joining CNBC Africa to discuss Africa’s prospects in 2020 is Alexander Forbes Chief Economist, Isaah Mhlanga and Head of Strategic Slients, Lesiba Mothata.
- Advertisement -