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Social media misinformation complicates Nigeria’s fight against coronavirus

The Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), a government agency in the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, has its task made more difficult by the flood of misinformation, especially on social media.

“Beware of unverified messages on social media!” the agency warned on Twitter following the counsel by a respected traditional ruler on alternative remedies for COVID-19.

On March 30, Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, the Ooni of Ife and spiritual ruler of the Yoruba, Nigeria’s second-biggest ethnic group, on social media platforms proposed the use of traditional herbs in the fight against the global coronavirus pandemic.

“These DO NOT protect against #COVID19: Consuming hot lemon, palm oil, ginger or garlic, gargling with salt water and drinking or spraying dettol on your body,” the NCDC warned.

An entrepreneur and a chartered accountant, Oba Ogunwusi is more qualified to make pronouncement on a company’s balance sheet but that did not prevent him from recommending herbal cure.

The same is true for many Nigerians who use social media platforms and feel no restraint in posting false information without a concern for the consequences.

During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, two people died and at least 20 were hospitalised, all because of a social media prank urging people to drink excessive amounts of salt water to avoid catching the Ebola virus.

The NCDC now has its work cut out. It has to fight both a virus and idiocy on a shoe-string budget.

Chikwe Iheakweazu, director-general of NCDC, in a recent televised interview said a huge part of the agency’s funds are now spent in messaging.

NCDC is fighting a difficult battle urging Nigerians to stay home, it has no power to restrain them from tweeting unverified information, sometimes outright pranks started on WhatsApp messaging platform before it goes viral.

The NCDC is also warning that some people are replicating its accounts on Instagram and posting information pretending to be from the agency even while it is in the process of verifying its accounts with Instagram.

Social distancing rules imply that many Nigerians have held closely to their phones. According to the Digital 2020 Global Overview Report, 169.2 million Nigerians have mobile (phone) connections. This represents 83 percent penetration of the total population of 203.6 million people.

Fifty percent of the population live in urban areas. 85.49 million Nigerians have internet access. This represents 42 percent of the total population. 27 million of them have social media accounts that they run actively. It takes only handful to start a dangerous rumour.

Though 135 people in Nigeria have been infected with the coronavirus and two people have since died, many Nigerians still think the virus is a hoax designed to siphon public funds.

Social media platforms by their nature are potent in transmitting information to a global audience in real time. Once the broadcast media was hailed for its speed and immediacy but in the age of social media, it is crawling.

The lack of gatekeepers ensures that the audience is fed information that is not subjected to the refining process media houses subject news.

“The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ – an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it,” says the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Due to the high demand for timely and trustworthy information about Covid-19, WHO says its technical risk communication and social media teams have been working closely to track and respond to myths and rumours on social media channels (including Weibo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest).

Some social media companies say they are fighting back by demoting rumours and elevating posts from respected sources. Facebook, for example, claims users see on average only 10 percent of their news feed.

But the efforts are complicated because even respected sources sometimes tweet or publish false information and online blogs and news sites who source news from these tweets further the lie.

Bots and fake accounts mirror real ones in design and undiscerning people believe this information.

ISAAC ANYAOGU

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