Analyzing the impact of COVID-19 disinformation in Africa
Widespread falsehoods about COVID-19 have hindered the ability of decision-makers in Africa to put evidence-based policies and effective interventions in place to address the pandemic. This negatively affects public health measures and results in additional deaths. At the same time, the scale of this “disinfodemic” highlights the importance of strengthening the relationship between Africa’s researchers and policymakers.
These are some of the findings of two IDRC-funded studies on COVID-19 misinformation (defined as false information created or disseminated without malicious intent) and disinformation (when false information is spread deliberately to confuse or manipulate people) and their impact on public opinion, policies and decision-making in Africa (with a focus on West and Central Africa).
“At a time of a global pandemic, we realized that misinformation is very dangerous,” said Marthe Penka Bogne, researcher with eBASE Africa and an author of one of the studies. “It actually limits the rate at which scientific evidence is taken into policy and practice.”
Bogne presented the study’s findings at an IDRC-organized webinar on Africa and the COVID-19 “disinfodemic” (falsehoods fueling the pandemic and its impacts). The aim was to discuss the results of the studies, exchange views on strategies to curb disinformation and misinformation and identify further research avenues to address the problem.
Social media a key driver of misinformation
In previous health crises in Africa, such as HIV in the 1980s and Ebola in the early 2000s, waves of false information were also witnessed. But, as outlined in the two studies, the extent and impact of the falsehoods have been far more pronounced — and far more toxic — during the current pandemic due to a confluence of factors, in particular the omnipresence of social media.
The studies noted that the proliferation of digital technologies and the powerful influence of social media in Africa have made it more challenging to distinguish information from disinformation — and factual news from fake news. This in turn makes it more difficult for the general public to make informed decisions regarding their health and COVID-19.
Other factors identified as influencing the spread of misinformation related to COVID-19 in the region include mistrust in government and its institutions, the novel aspect of the disease, religious factors, cultural beliefs and conspiracy theories, with social media providing the platform for such harmful theories to flourish.
During the webinar, independent researcher Asaah Ndah Asongwed, who authored the second study, highlighted results of surveys illustrating the magnitude of pandemic-related falsehoods in Africa, including conspiracy theories around the origins of the disease. Referring to a survey of 452 people in West Africa conducted as part of his research, Asongwed’s report states that a “non-negligable part of the survey sample believes in falsehoods regarding COVID-19.”
Deaths directly linked to COVID-19 falsehoods
The studies identified several harmful consequences of mis/disinformation in Africa. For example, the spread of falsehoods about the disease’s origins, symptoms, transmission methods and treatments has constituted a significant threat to public health. It has hampered vaccination campaigns in African countries and reduced people’s willingness to comply with health measures, with sometimes deadly consequences.
Citing a World Health Organization (WHO) report which estimated that nearly 6,000 people around the globe were hospitalized because of COVID-19 misinformation in the first three months of 2020, Asongwe explained that false information had led to the deaths of hundreds of people. For example, people ingested toxic methanol, erroneously believing that highly concentrated alcohol could cure COVID-19.
In addition, the lack of research-backed evidence in policymaking can lead to poor decision-making, according to the eBASE study. That’s because without timely access to scientific evidence, policymakers tend to focus more on public anxieties, interests and pressures rather than on adopting the best research-backed policies to address a critical situation, the study found.
Making better use of research evidence for sound policymaking
The research outlined several measures to counter mis/disinformation, including the use of storytelling, identified as an important aspect of African culture. Storytelling can reduce the complexity of scientific findings so that non-literate communities can also have access to research evidence, the studies noted.
Strengthening the relationship between researchers and policymakers was another recommendation emerging from the studies. Policymakers were encouraged to network with research institutions to make better use of research evidence for policy decision-making.
Other recommendations include promoting media and digital literacy and the constructive use of the media, engaging with community and local leaders to build trust between citizens and the authorities, using local languages, incorporating critical thinking in the school curriculum, and promoting the use of fact-checking platforms and organizations.
“One thing that was really of concern for us that we saw during this pandemic was the fact that corrected information tends to not actually travel as far as the original piece of misinformation, so we are always trying to play catch up with the misinformation that is spreading,” said Hlalani Gumpo, a panelist at the webinar and impact manager at Africa Check. She stated that artificial intelligence was an important tool to help increase the capacity of fact-checking organizations and counter the harmful effects of misinformation.
While conditions in Africa provided fertile ground for the spread of harmful mis/disinformation throughout communities and across borders, another panelist at the webinar stressed that the continent also provided other parts of the world with some valuable lessons learned and best practices for combatting the phenomenon.
In particular, the capacity created within some African non-governmental organizations to counter falsehoods “should inspire civil society organizations in other places to do something similar,” said Sergio Cecchini, Africa Infodemic Response Alliance Coordinator at WHO’s Regional Office for Africa. He remarked that the “activist approach” used by fact-checking entities in Africa was more prevalent and robust than in other continents. “We don’t have these groups in Europe, for example,” Cecchini stated.
IDRC President Jean Lebel, who moderated the webinar, said that collaboration among stakeholders was essential to counter the negative effects of mis/disinformation and mitigate the disease’s devastating impact on lives and livelihoods.
“Whatever the means and the tools that are required, we need to work together,” Lebel stated. “Only this way can we combat the infodemic, can we combat this burden of disease and fatalities.”
The two studies were funded through the Rachel DesRosiers Alumni Award, supported by private contributions from former IDRC employees.
The studies complement a greater IDRC-funded analysis on efforts to counter the “information disorder” in the Global South, with a focus on how the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the problem. In addition to misinformation and disinformation, the analysis explored the impact of malinformation (when information, whether factual or false, is shared to cause harm, often by moving information designed to stay private into the public sphere).
A recording of the webinar is available for viewing on IDRC’s website.
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