Nigeria Media and the Fight against COVID-19 Misinformation

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While misinformation has become one of the biggest enemies of the fight against COVID-19 in Nigeria, the role of the media in providing accurate and evidence-based information to citizens cannot be overemphasised. Martins Ifijeh writes

Ever wondered why many Nigerians continue to doubt the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the approaches taken by governments and health bodies against the outbreak? Wonder no more. Misinformation and mistrust are often at the centre of people’s belief systems.

On the one hand, there is scientifically- proven, or at evidence-based information about the pandemic which Nigerians deserve to know about. However, on the other hand, there is bizarre counter-information from different quarters, which in many instances overshadows the fact-checked information, because they are often driven by mischief, can be sensationalist in nature and filled with half-truths that appeal to the consciousness of Nigerian and those that believe in conspiracy theories.

The misinformation may even have been initiated by people who ordinarily have no prior experience or knowledge about epidemics and should, in reality, be ignored when they issue health directives. The level and speed of spread of their half-truths are just like wildfire in a burning dry forest, and the spread is further made possible by previously established preconceptions. It is therefore critical not to ignore the impact of the misinformation on citizens and the effect it has, hampering the fight against COVID-19. No thanks to the internet which has become a major driver of misinformation and disinformation in Nigeria; two enemies that now represent the biggest threats to the public health of Nigerians and response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

What is more worrisome is that traditional media, including radio, television and newspaper, mediums that are critical sources of information which should be the viral circuit-breaker meant to correct misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 are often not living up to the critical role they are supposed to play by providing fact-checked and scientifically proven information in their publications or broadcasts, countering the sensationalist mistruths that are being spread around.

In some cases, the media propagates these half-truths without recourse to their authenticity or the credibility of the sources.

Recent audience insight polling from NOIPolls in August 2020, which looked at risk communications and community engagement found that the top sources of information about COVID-19 were TV and radio. As an example, when respondents were asked where they heard information that malaria drugs could cure COVID-19 , 25 per cent of respondents mentioned neighbours and people in their communities, 22 per cent stated friends and family, 20 per cent stated television and 14 per cent stated radio.

For clarity to explain the difference between misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19; the former is the creation and spreading of false or misleading information, without the intention to cause harm, while the latter is the intentional sharing of information with the intention of causing harm or creating social discontent. Both have been described by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, as bigger enemies of COVID-19 than the virus itself.

Misinformation about COVID-19 is being complicated by the evolving nature of the pandemic, and the speed at which knowledge about the virus continues to increase. There has also been significant back and forth about the efficacy of various therapeutics to cure or manage COVID-19 infection. There remain many unknowns about the virus and the knowledge vacuums are being filled by unfounded speculation and misinformation, contributing to the scepticism about the public health response and interventions being put in place.

COVID-19 Misinformation and its Effect on Nigerians

Although the Nigerian government and public health experts have made efforts to update the citizens on health protocols and speedy evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, the spread of misinformation has started taking a toll on Nigerians, thereby endangering the noticeable progress already made in tackling the virus in the country.

For instance, according to results from NOIPolls in August 2020, while 74 per cent of Nigerians think the virus is real, 20 per cent remain sceptical about the existence of the virus. The reasons mentioned for not believing in the existence of COVID-19 include mistrust for the government. Some people also state that they have not seen anyone infected with the virus. This is reflective in the level of compliance on face masks, social and physical distancing, utterances by some otherwise respected religious leaders, among others.

In addition, the messages that were previously left in the comments section of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) Twitter handle are a further reflection of the cynicism and scepticism about the presence of the virus and the daily number of confirmed cases. At the beginning of the pandemic, comments were more of unity and patriotism. They prayed in their replies for the virus to go away. But as misinformation began to gain traction, Nigerian citizens began engaging with NCDC on Twitter by expressing their disbelief of the numbers announced daily.

Filling the Gap against COVID-19 Misinformation

While misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories thrive during crisis moments, one institution that can salvage the situation is the media, mostly traditional media, because of the respect and audience they command. There are therefore a number of roles these institutions must play to help address the obvious gaps in information.

Promoting Facts, Prioritising Science

The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, during a recent Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 update in Abuja, said that there was a lot of misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories being peddled around the virus, and it was having a significant impact on the fight against the virus. He advised the media to be the link between
experts/governments and the people, rather than having the citizens get their information from unverifiable sources such as social media, which has been a major driver contributing to the spread of misinformation about COVID-19.

But for this to happen, the media must be ready to debunk and fact- check misinformation, countering it with evidence-based information, as well as choosing science over sensational reports that would, in the long run, erode trust in the public health response to the outbreak.

Just recently, Nigeria Health Watch, an Abuja-based health communications and advocacy organisation started their partnership with Meedan, a non-profit social technology company, leveraging their Digital Lab to counter misinformation about COVID-19 in Nigeria.

Through the partnership, both organisations gather misinformation or rumours around COVID-19 circulating in Nigeria, tapping into Meedan’s panel of public health experts who debunk and fact-check the misinformation/rumours, providing evidence-based responses on various platforms. The Twitter hashtag #HealthFactCheckNaija has been used disseminate fact-checked information.

A public relations expert, and Head of Projects at The Billboard Communications, Rufus Onyebagu, said only a handful of Nigerians have experienced a pandemic before, hence misinformation was bound to happen, but that media houses have a duty to report only facts about the outbreak. “The media should have experts, especially virologists, epidemiologists and public health persons to always defer to when it comes to matters of science and COVID-19. People believe in the media, and whatever they read or listen to has a way of changing their perception.”

Countering Controversial Misinformation

He called on the media never to shy away from addressing controversial and countering stories that have gone viral about COVID-19. “When some Nigerian pastors were championing 5G and COVID-19 theories, how many media houses assembled health and technology experts and published articles to say the two have no relationship. What prominence was this issue given by the media?”

He called on the media to dedicate a section of its work to addressing fake news and rumours about the pandemic, stressing that to be fair to Nigerians, they move along with misinformation because the real information is not put in their faces as against the wrong messages.

Non-politicisation of Stories

While it is no longer news that many false stories about COVID-19 have political or even religious undertones, the media has a role to remove strands of politics, religion and personal interest from every story regarding the public health of Nigerians.

“For me, when someone is discussing an issue, what I first lookout for is whether he is qualified to talk on the particular focus,” Onyebagu said, adding that, “for instance, if the discussion is about whether or not particular drugs work for COVID-19, I should be able to know whether the guest I am interviewing is an expert in that area, whether he or she has an interest because of the gains to be made from those drugs, whether or not there is a political undertone, among others. The reason is, people will depend on that report to make their life decisions. So, whatever should be published must be done with utmost professionalism.“
Role as Misinformation Circuit-breaker

The PR strategist said if particular rumours or fake news go viral, it means that area of thought is what the people have interest in at that time, adding that it behoves on the media to also have an interest in the message, and then stop the fake viral information.

He said: “The media has the capacity to stop fake news that has gone viral. The best to do this is to fact check the information and bring the right perspective out.”

“The partnership between Nigeria Health Watch and Meedan leverages on various tools to disseminate fact-checked information. Given the importance and prominence of radio, debunked misinformation is disseminated via radio jingles and radio shows, which enables a two-way communication platform so listeners can call in and ask questions about rumours they may have heard.

“WhatsApp has also been a prominent platform in the spread of misinformation. The Nigeria Health Watch team has used this platform to disseminate information and have created short engaging animations that are used to counter and correct misinformation. Anything that is in the public interest should concern the media and the various media platforms should collectively support in stopping the spread of misinformation. If the fake news is of public interest, the right message will also be of public interest if timely released,” he added.

With the media stepping up in its role against COVID-19 misinformation, fewer Nigerians will doubt the existence of the virus and will have greater trust and be more responsive to the approaches taken by the governments and public health bodies to halt the spread of COVID-19.