Column Opinion

Nigeria’s COVID19 Infodemic Conflict; A Connexus!

By Prince Charles Dickson PhD

“Fake news that has been spread during the COVID19 pandemic in Nigeria has been characterized by religious, political and conspiracy theories as well as misinformation about the number of cases and deaths and about prevention measures and treatment. Sadly the main dissemination channels are WhatsApp and Facebook, with the use of messages, images, and videos…” Bar. Adamu Madaki, legal practitioner and teacher.

The outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has been accompanied by a large amount of misleading and false information about the virus, especially on social media.

This is the real first pandemic to come with an “infodemic”, one that has left behavioral scientists at loss, misinformation has had a negative influence on the widespread adoption of health protective behaviors in the Nigerian population, especially one that suffers a trust deficit in the government’s handling of anything.

So much has come to bear as experts in the behavioral sciences and development sphere have tried to come up with an effective societal response to curb the spread of misinformation about the virus.

Using a theory of psychological inoculation (or prebunking) as an efficient vehicle for conferring large-scale psychological resistance against fake news. I as team lead for the Tattaaunawa Roundtable Initiative (TRICentre) and an #influencersforchange sought to with the help of the European Union funded Search For Common Ground ‘Connexus’ led project to make a little difference at community level working with youths and community level networks, and diverse faith and ethnic group.

The idea was to build a campaign to be driven by the need to teach communities how to x-ray the overabundance of information especially in the Nigerian public space.

In Nigeria there is an overwhelming trajectory of daily rising conspiracy theories and more so, being spread by health practitioners. These are just a few factors driven by misinformation and disinformation, rumor and fake news about the virus thus undermining public support for—and the adoption of—preventative health behaviors; add this to a volatile conflict map, you begin to see the link.

By the training provided, young persons in their communities, with others alongside too, are taught to leverage on how to identify fake news with the aim of effectively managing societal response to help limit the spread of influential misinformation.

Like in the case of Ade one of our youth ambassadors, “I believed for obvious reasons that ginger was a cure for COVID19, that was after I convinced myself that COVID19 was no different from regular malaria.”

It is mind blowing that “cures”, such as gargling with lemon or salt water and other herbal remedies and jokes around Chinese origins reached local levels and when we allowed our participants watch the conspiracy film “Plandemic” one of the most widespread examples of coronavirus-related misinformation, it was eye opening for them all.

And we also tackled fake news about the virus actively promoted by political elites, like a governor of one of the North Central states, who falsely claimed that the virus did not exist.

So for us in this project, we were bent on “immunizing” people against the misinformation virus, whether it’s the fake news on 5G or that Christians want to wipe out Muslims, or the fake news about magnetic chips being inserted in the populace or the annihilation of the black world; the import of the relationship of the “infodemic” associated with COVID19 and conflict is one that cannot be overemphasised in places like Jos, Plateau a very fragile state, and it was necessary to bring the best possible solution to rackling it.

Misinformation about COVID-19 is not limited to information that is blatantly true or false, which widens the scope of the problem., even deciding what counts as misinformation about COVID-19 is a complicated matter, as insights into the causes of and treatments for the virus develop over time. Nonetheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that misinformation about COVID-19 is a common problem and we are determined to take on it headlong

For example, in our pre-training we found out that approximately (89%) of our participants reported exposure to fake news about the coronavirus and half of those reported seeing it on a daily basis, which we saw as problematic because repeated exposure is known to increase belief in fake news.

It is shocking how many Nigerians believe that the virus is either man made or produced on purpose by powerful organizations or the number of public officials that think that Bill Gates is planning to use the COVID-19 vaccine to implement microchips in people, all because of repeated exposure, and this is important because we have a learning population, and unlearning or relearning is extremely difficult in a society that is stereotypical and generalizes a lot.

It is important to agree that spreading misinformation can start: from individuals, such as politicians,  criminals, after some sort of profit; from, non-state, states and state-backed actors seeking to advance geopolitical interests; from opportunists looking to discredit official sources, and more.

It only gains traction however, if the public shares it through social media and we almost are all guilty of pushing the share button frequently almost at will.

Spreading fake news, disinformation and misinformation about COVID-19, though not always a criminal offence, has very serious repercussions, endangering public health and directly affecting people’s lives.

It puts people at risk by: promoting fake products and services (e.g. fake COVID-19 tests and vaccines);promoting a false sense of security (e.g. misleading information about treatments); promoting suspicion of the official guidelines and sources. For example religious organizations believed that the social distancing rules that reduced adherents from attending services were targeted at them.

The Youth 4 Media and Information Literacy initiative is therefore important and has been effective under the right conditions, we are making it proactive rather than reactive by engaging young people, along with members of existing traditional community networks, to tackle misinformation by building their media and information literacy.

Beyond COVID19 Nigeria is also under a scourge of fake news, mis and disinformation, we are teaching this mindful – fake news will often tell you what you want to hear with clickbait headlines. Exploring the diversity amongst faiths and ethnicities to work together and understand the danger of misinformation and social media misuse while acting as interfaith youth champions who encourage pluralism, inclusivity, and diversity.

We are inculcating the “Look around and check the sources” principle, making the audience ask questions, such as, how many sources does the story quote? Mandating that they do a Photo search – is the news they are reading accompanied by a photo that strikes them as out of context? We tell them that by running an online search, it might be their clue towards figuring out that this is an example of misinformation. We have encouraged them to check the date too – as some news outlets republish old posts or promote old news as current stories. When they check the publication date of the article and check if the timeline it refers to makes sense. Turn to the experts – go to reputable websites like this one where you are reading this, is the information also available there?

At the end of these all, Nigeria has a youthcentric population, teaching them simply implies building the nation, a young populace that will also serve as mentors and ambassadors of the campaign to tackle community-led media misinformation, manage the spread of rumors, and encourage media inclusivity; this network of local community-based influencers called Youth 4 MIL can be a group that can lead the required change in the nation’s conflict landscape, and also play a positive role in curbing fake news and misinformation, and how well they do—Only time will tell.

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