Opinion

Coronavirus 'infodemic': Dealing with a daily dose of fake news

Coronavirus 'infodemic': Dealing with a daily dose of fake news
  • Social media is the Petri dish of conspiracies, unsubstantiated claims, and fake Covid-19 cures.

  • Some claim the disease can be cured by sniffing cocaine, or by taking vitamin C or by avoiding spicy foods.

  • Some conspiracy theorists purport that the virus is a bioweapon stolen from Canada.

  • Others suggest that it is human-made, that it was mistakenly released from a state-owned lab in China.

The never-before-seen coronavirus — the virus that causes Covid-19 — has shaken the foundations of public health around the world. Scientists are using their finest tools to stop its spread, but the extent of misinformation slows the pace of these efforts.

Social media is the Petri dish of conspiracies, unsubstantiated claims, and fake Covid-19 cures. Some claim the disease can be cured by sniffing cocaine, or by taking vitamin C or by avoiding spicy foods.

Some conspiracy theorists purport that the virus is a bioweapon stolen from Canada. Others suggest that it is human-made, that it was mistakenly released from a state-owned lab in China.

The fact, however, is that scientists have proof that coronavirus originated in bats, not in a lab. As of now, there is no vaccine, but efforts are afoot to find one.

The World Health Organization refers to these conspiracies and phoney cures as “infodemic”, drawing a parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic. In times of crisis, accurate information is an absolute imperative. People thirst for information to know how to protect themselves. Healthcare workers need precise information to prepare and stay ahead of the disease. At all levels of leadership, officials rely on information to test the success of their interventions.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa taught us that rumours and myths were significant contributors to fuelling the spread of disease.

These falsehoods often spread faster than reliable information or the virus itself.

In a bid to stem the tide of fake information, countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East are cracking down on rumour-mongers who ride on the power of cyberspace to reach millions of people. Just this week, a Kenyan was arrested for publishing misleading information on the coronavirus. If convicted, he will face a hefty fine and a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

But there is a thin line between punishing purveyors of fake news and curtailing the freedom of information. Laws that impose criminal charges for spreading rumours can cower professionals into silence, fearing to share useful information that could rub the authorities the wrong way. Besides, some governments, in a bid to show that they are in control, can downplay the extent of a fast-spreading disease.

While no one source of information is perfect, the World Health Organisation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the UK’s National Health Service and the US Food and Drug Administration are among the inveterate sources of reliable information.

Here is my point: While experts are burning the candle at both ends to neuter the coronavirus, they are also competing against jets of unmetered information.

We can all help by fact-checking information before using or sharing it.

The websites of reputable health organisations are credible places for facts; they are run by a vanguard of scientists whose mission is to protect public health.

Mr. Wambugu is an informatician; Twitter:@samwambugu2