The Coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) has become a major global crisis. Alongside it, a new crisis emerged with it in the form of fake news and misinformation.
By the time of writing this article, the global COVID-19 statistics show there are 99.8 million cases of COVID-19 with 71.8 million recoveries and 2.1 million deaths. 25.9 million people are currently infected with the disease. In Kenya, there are nearly 100,000 cases recorded of the disease at the time of writing, with 1,744 deaths and 82.9 thousand recoveries with the rest being current infections.
At the same time, just as the COVID-19 disease has spread around the world, so have fake news and misinformation about the disease. Fake news is usually fake, false or fabricated stories with no sources, facts or quotes that are verifiable. Fake news is usually spread on the internet or other forms of media and usually appear as stories or news, that are intended to influence public views.
Fake news is generally meant to mislead the reader (propaganda) or designed for profit by encouraging clickbait (the writer makes more money when more people click and read the story). While fake news may be confused with other types of information that may not require verifiable sources, quotes or facts, the main intention of fake news is misinformation. Misinformation has the intention of spreading false, fake or fabricated information, even though there is usually no malicious intention most times.
The social media has become the fuel for fake news and misinformation about COVID-19 due to the ease of sharing of the stories quickly and widely. The possibility of a Facebook post or tweet to go viral has made the social media the go-to source for misinformation by people intent on spreading fake news and misinformation about the COVID-19 disease.
As mentioned, the fake news and misinformation about COVID-19 have become a global problem. Not only has this hampered the efforts to fight the disease, but they have also contributed to negative effects both online and offline.
The fake news and misinformation about COVID-19 are about who controls the narrative.
The spread of fake news and misinformation about COVID-19 has increased destructive beliefs, especially those around anti-vaccination. A survey carried out in Europe shows about 10% of the interviewed population in Germany and France said they would not accept a COVID-19 vaccine. France had the highest percentage of “unsure” with 28%.
The spread of fake news and misinformation about COVID-19 has led to anti-vaccination campaigns in some countries in the West and the protests against lockdowns and imposed usage of masks. More severe consequences have been the shortage of medicines such as hydroxychloroquine or medical facial masks with even some patients in Europe refusing to take ibuprofen after some viral misinformation claimed it worsened the COVID-19 symptoms.
Fake news and misinformation also led to increased racism and xenophobia against certain groups of Asian descent, especially the Chinese. One research recorded an increased surge in hate speech directed towards the Chinese, with 900% increase in hate speech on Twitter directed towards China and the Chinese people. The research also recorded a 200% increase in visits to hate websites and posts that were specific about Asians. Moreover, there was a 70% increase in hate between kids and teens during online chats and a 40% increase in toxicity on popular gaming platforms, such as Discord.
“…the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering…”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
The hate directed at the Asian population has been made worse by some prominent people such as politicians, often in the news and news conferences. Prominent politicians including the former US president have been cited calling the virus the ‘Chinese Virus’ and others the ‘Wuhan virus’. These statements have been said to legitimise the fake news and misinformation about COVID-19 and the results, such as racism and conspiracy theories.
“a reference to the coronavirus/COVID19 other than its scientific name is irresponsible and goes against every leading public health expert because of the stigmatising effect.”
Cynthia Choi of the US-based Chinese for Affirmative Action
Asians and people of Asian descent around the world have been subjected to attacks and beatings, violent bullying, threats, racist abuse, and discrimination that appear linked to the pandemic. In Africa, there have been reports of discrimination and attacks on Asian people accused of carrying coronavirus, as well as foreigners generally, including in Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa.
“When I see a Chinese, I get scared because I don’t know if they are from China or if they were in Kenya before the virus outbreak…You know how our system is corrupt. You never know. So that’s why when I see a Chinese I get a little bit scared.”
Patricia Wayua, a media consultant in Kenya
The surge in fake news and misinformation about COVID 19 has also seen people believing in conspiracy theories. Some believe that China is responsible for the virus as a means of population control and world domination while others believe the disease is a creation of the big pharmaceutical companies intent on making a profit. Some even have gone further to create a connection between COVID-19 and the implementation of 5G technology claiming the intention is to decimate the population.
Even businesses have not been spared from the fake news and misinformation about COVID-19, including some claims that Chinese food harboured the virus, which has affected a lot of Asian food businesses due to loss of customers. The Verge reports that many of the offending coronavirus posts have confidently connected the virus to Chinese people’s purported appetite for bat, which has been labelled disgusting, dangerous, and something people don’t eat “in the normal world.”
The Washington Post reports that researchers fear online hatred and distrust toward China and people of East Asian descent are contributing to an increasingly well-documented rash of real-world incidents, including verbal attacks, violence and boycotts of Asian-owned businesses.
Yet, discrimination hasn’t been limited to Asians or people of Asian descent based on fake news and misinformation about COVID-19. Human Rights Watch reports that in early April 2020, Chinese authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong province, which has China’s largest African community, began a campaign to forcibly test Africans for the coronavirus, and ordered them to self-isolate or to quarantine in designated hotels. Landlords then evicted African residents, forcing many to sleep on the street, and hotels, shops, and restaurants refused African customers.
Many apparent Covid-19-related cases of attacks and discrimination against Muslims have been reported in India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
A study by Reuters says that top-down misinformation from politicians, celebrities, and other prominent public figures made up just 20% of the claims in their sample but accounted for 69% of total social media engagement. While the majority of misinformation on social media came from ordinary people, most of these posts seemed to generate far less engagement.
There have been misleading or false claims about the actions or policies of public authorities, including government and international bodies like the WHO or the UN. The Reuters study says that such claims were the single largest group of claims identified, appearing in 39% of their sample.
Several presidents such as United State’s Donald Trump, Mexico’s Andres Manuel López Obrador and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have spread false information such as the safe injection of disinfectants, undermining the importance of facemask use and overall contradicting medical advice, going as far as outright denying the pandemic.
In some countries, the measures imposed to combat the disease have also turned violent with attacks on health workers being reported in Mexico and India.
All these cases of misinformation and fake news surrounding the COVID-19 have widespread effects. They have cost human lives and put the wellbeing of the population and health workers at stake. The outright denial and misinformation by prominent officials undermined public accountability for the disease with many people across the world refusing to social distance and to wear masks.
Misinformation about the coronavirus has led to the deaths to at least some 800 people and possibly more, according to one study. The study followed and examined COVID-19-related rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories circulating online, including fact-checking websites, Facebook, Twitter, and online newspapers, and their impacts on public health.
The study found that roughly 800 people died from drinking highly-concentrated alcohol in the hope of disinfecting their bodies, while 5,900 citizens were hospitalized after consuming methanol, with 60 people going blind as a result. Others went to the extreme as to eat cow dung based on misinformation that it would prevent COVID-19 infection.
The scientists also looked into other rumours, such as eating garlic, wearing warm socks and spreading goose fat on one’s chest, as a treatment for the potentially fatal virus. Conspiracy theories were also monitored, such as the notion that it’s a bio-weapon funded by Bill Gates to further vaccine sales.
Looking at Kenya, some citizens are yet to be convinced that COVID-19 is real, hence they are not taking the disease seriously. The situation has been made worse by some politicians, who can sway the masses, being infected but opted to remain silent, perhaps in fear of stigmatisation.
A common question asked on social media is: “Do you or your loved ones know anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19?” and the most common answer is “No”. Such a case only adds fuel to the doubters. Another reason cited as to why misinformation about the disease has prevailed in Kenya is due to certain topics being frowned upon as taboo when fully disclosed, such as diseases.
But the biggest reason for the misinformation and fake news on COVID-19 in Kenya is the trust gap between citizens and the government. Some believed that the first reported victims that were staged by the government were supposedly sent to the media by the government to convince Kenyans that Covid-19 was real, and to keep donor funding flowing, ostensibly for the containment of the virus.
At one time, some Kenyans even believed Covid-19 was a foreigner’s disease and that Africans were to be resistant to it, which of course is misinformed.
What this whole scenario has caused is those who are infected with the disease being shunned or being reluctant to go public about the disease.
With the vaccine for the COVID-19 being rolled out, a study has shown that susceptibility to fake news and misinformation is highly related to the hesitancy or reduced willingness to get vaccinated against the disease. A subsequent study found a significant link between disinformation and vaccination coverage, including public doubts on vaccination safety.
Therefore, fake news and misinformation about COVID-19 have resulted in unintended consequences, especially due to gullibility and herd mentality. The broader effects have been deaths, disregard for public safety measures to contain the disease and discrimination on a racial and religious basis.
However, there have been several global attempts to respond to the fake news and misinformation, from the establishment of fact-checking initiatives and the efforts by media stations to incorporate fact-checking in their reporting.
The WHO refers to the fake news and misinformation on COVID-19 as an “infodemic”. Therefore, traditional media has a key role in providing evidence-based information to the general public, which will then hopefully be picked up on social media.