Arresting misinformation in wake of Covid-19 crisis

Friday, April 3rd, 2020 00:00 |
Health CS Mutahi Kagwe (third left) with Covid-19 recoverees Brenda Cherotich (third right) and Brian Orinda (second left) at Afya House. Also in the picture are Health PS Susan Mochache (second right), Head of Department of Infectious Disease at KNH Loise Achieng’ and KNH Chief Executive Evanson Kamuri (right). Photo/PD/NICHOLAS NTHENGE


“Coronavirus is treatable!” This was the message from Brenda, Kenya’s first Covid-19 patient who has recovered after successful treatment during a 23-day quarantine period.

Her experience with coronavirus has given hope to many Kenyans that hitherto, have been living with fear for their health. Indeed, her sense of responsibility and patriotism will be remembered. 

The country went into frenzy when Brenda’s case was reported in the media. Being the first case in Kenya, speculation was rife about her identity and movements within the country.

This uncertainty eventually led to misinformation, disinformation and even the stigmatisation of certain individuals suspected to have contracted the virus. 

Notably, governments and medical institutions across the world are doing all they can to provide citizens with timely and accurate information on the disease.

Regrettably, their efforts are constantly challenged by the avid spread of falsehoods and half-truths about the virus, its impact and its possible cures. 

In particular, medical misinformation is being created and shared across platforms with little regard to the impact that it might have on its recipients.

Those creating such alternative information are as varied as those affected by it.

From herbalists, religious leaders to politicians, every one seems to have an instant cure, if not a fact sheet on the global and local effects of the virus.

The consequence of such abandon is that those receiving the message will either panic, become complacent or apathetic about the virus and its impact. 

The spread of misinformation about coronavirus has become so perverse that world leaders are now calling on the masses to exercise caution in their conversations about the pandemic.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar this week, for instance, used his Twitter handle to urge everyone to “please stop sharing unverified info on WhatsApp groups.

“These messages are scaring and confusing people and causing real damage. Please get your info from official, trusted sources,” he said.

Social media is especially problematic and it gets even complicated with platforms such as WhatsApp that have end-to-end encryptions.

Under such circumstances, it becomes impossible to hold the platforms accountable or for third party fact-checkers to detect the source and path of information. 

Policing can only go so far, however, in addressing the issue at hand. While not all information that is created is intended to deceive and cause harm, it is probable that there are groups and individuals that will take advantage of the situation to breed disorder.

Regardless, it is important that the masses are empowered with the right skills to detect and deal with medical misinformation. 

Public education about the virus tops this list of interventions. It is generally agreed that when you are proactive with timely and accurate information, you leave little room for misinterpretation and falsehoods.

Governments and medical institutions have consequently, made it a priority to build public trust in the nature and extent of information that they provide.

Official information about corona has been simplified into local languages to meet that demand and there is constant communication between these entities and the masses. 

It has also helped that those put in charge of communicating about the virus are trusted faces—believable even when there is little to say. 

Beyond this, it is necessary to teach people how to be smart consumers of information. Many institutions continue to invest in fake news ‘classes’ in anticipation of occurrences such as Covid-19.

However, in instances where such classes do not exist, self-verification of information must be emphasised. 

Self-verification demands that an individual fact-checks the information they are presented with.

In the age of the Internet and social media, searching and browsing through official websites or social media handles work best. This is especially important in times of crisis and uncertainty. 

Agreeably, an individual’s ability to recognise false information on any platform will be affected by their levels of education, income, Internet skills and personal attitude towards verification of information. 

It must be remembered, however, that when lies reach a person who practices self-verification then that lie ceases to grow.

The opposite entails when that falsehood gets to someone who is unwilling or unable to examine its authenticity. —The writer is an Advocate of the High Court

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