The past two years have been riddled with uncertainty and controversy, mainly due to the covid-19 pandemic that has swept the world off its feet. It comes as no surprise that ‘Vax’ has been selected as the word of the year for 2021 by Oxford Languages.
During this time there has been a flood of information- some accurate and some not- around the pandemic. Research has shown that it takes the truth six times as long to reach 1,500 people as falsehood. There has also been an indication that humans are primarily responsible for the spread of misleading information on social media networks.
International organisations and bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) have launched campaigns to fight the spread of covid-19 mis- and disinformation. Inaccurate information is essentially a beast of our own creation that only we can defeat. Fact-checking organisations have been at the forefront of this fight, seeking support from the public to curb the spread of inaccurate information related to the pandemic as illustrated in the TikTok video below by Africa Check.
@africacheck Join us in the fight against #Covid19 disinformation 💪 #factcheck #tiktokafrica #tiktoksouthafrica #safeathome #athome #coronavirus #fyp ♬ original sound – Africa Check
The ‘infodemic’ and the spread of misinformation
Saying that the past two years have been unprecedented is an undersell. The ‘infodemic’ as coined by the WHO has made it difficult for individuals to sort the facts from fiction. We find ourselves overwhelmed by different types of information from different sources, credible and non-credible. It has become paramount to be cognisant of the information we consume and the sources that share this information, especially during a pandemic.
In response to the flood of vaccine misinformation, Africa Check developed the infographic below to raise awareness on how vaccines are approved in Kenya.
Consuming large quantities of information around covid-19 has made almost everyone an expert on infectious diseases. It reached a point where the only thing newsworthy was the pandemic, you switch on your TV and there are projections on the trajectory of the pandemic and the impending waves, you buy a newspaper or read the news online and there are analyses on the origins of the pandemic, even the dormant family WhatsApp group has become a forum for discussion regarding covid-19.
The aunt you haven’t seen in years knows every remedy for every symptom, your cousin is able to unpack the different medical terminology and your nephew reminds you to wash your hands for twenty seconds after touching your phone. Even though they all have good intentions the information they are sharing is not always accurate and could do more harm than good.
The potential harm of health misinformation
Misinformation unlike disinformation is shared innocently without being aware that the information being shared is inaccurate. This can have a dangerous outcome especially if the misinformation is shared or comes from a source that is perceived as credible such as a public figure or the news media.
Even though there isn’t sufficient documented evidence that links misinformation and the potential harm it can cause, there is anecdotal evidence. A systematic review of misinformation shared online identified a case where an individual with cancer tried to self-medicate which resulted in them experiencing kidney and liver failure. Individuals make ill informed decisions due to health misinformation which could potentially complicate their current health or at the worst lead to death.
There was a common thread amongst fact-checking organisation part of the Africa Facts network- an informal network of more than 20 fact-checking organisations on the continent. The most prevalent form of health misinformation involved the promotion of traditional medicines and home remedies as cures for covid-19.
The Facebook post below is inaccurate and claimed that drinking ‘asthma plant’ tea helps with covid-19 breathing complications, such posts were frequently shared on social media platforms.
In certain regions medical professionals have been difficult to reach, to provide answers related to misinformation regarding these remedies and cures. Monique Ngo Mayag from AFP fact-check who covers the Senegal and Cameroon region stated that , “In Africa, it is not at all easy to find, for example, pneumologists, health authorities in charge of the fight against covid-19, open to the media. It’s hard to make them understand the value of answering basic questions like “Are neem leaves healing covid?”.
Finding innovative ways to curb the spread of misinformation
The pandemic has prompted fact-checking organisations to find news ways on how to tackle the spread of misinformation. There have been campaigns and initiatives launched aimed at informing and educating the general public, equipping them with the necessary information to make informed decisions.
Africa Check is one such organisation, over the past two years they have participated in panel discussions, trained journalist and produced more than 500 fact-checks- all related to covid-19. The organisation is also well known for finding innovative ways to create content that is interactive, able to reach larger audiences such as their What’s Crap on WhatsApp podcast with Volume. This podcast is shared weekly with subscribers and debunks misinformation shared on WhatsApp.
In response to the spread of vaccine misinformation which has been one of the drivers fueling vaccine hesitancy, Africa Check launched the Know The Facts Get The Vax campaign. The campaign has been rolled out in Africa Checks regional offices, in different formats across multiple media platforms including Youtube and Twitter. Such as the GIF below on how covid-19 vaccines were developed so quickly.
It might seem like Covid-19 vaccines have appeared suddenly, but the development has actually been in the works for around 50 years
— Africa Check (@AfricaCheck) August 6, 2021
A proactive approach to fact-checking health misinformation
Health misinformation is not unique to the covid-19 pandemic. It existed before the pandemic and will persist even after the pandemic. The pandemic highlighted two important things, the first was a delayed response to the covid-19 pandemic due to a lack of medical resources, the second is the spread of misinformation during a crisis and the need for sufficient resources to respond.
Fact-checking will have to make the shift from being reactive, debunking claims that are inaccurate after they have been shared in the public domain to being proactive by deploying strategies aimed at pre-bunking misinformation on key topics. In the audio clip below Africa Check’s Deputy Chief Editor, Kate Wilkinson, details how shifting to being proactive in fact-checking compliments and can improve the practice of fact-checking.
Wilkinson states that, “we do a lot of proactive work which is an attempt at getting ahead of false information and to mitigate and minimise the damage that future false information will have on society”
If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that it’s better to be over-prepared than overwhelmed. Moving forward, fact-checkers and their organisations will need to learn how to quickly adapt to sudden changes in the misinformation landscape. It is only by being ingenuitive that fact-checking will be able to gain ground in tackling the spread of health misinformation.
Disclaimer: Thipe Maelane is the Outreach Coordinator at Africa Check which is a non-partisan fact-checking organisation.