According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the COVID-19 pandemic is accompanied by “an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – and, that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
Fake news peddlers are already all-out on social media fomenting panic and confusion with
false claims, misinformation and conspiracy theories thus hampering control measures being implemented by governments at different levels.
One of their greatest weapons is WhatsApp. No thanks to the lack of digital literacy, a lot of misleading tweets and Facebook posts are equally being endorsed as reliable news by many users.
Fact-checks are also showing their limitations as audience attention has initially shifted with “first knowledge illusions” while fake news continues to float and recycle.
Separating fact from fiction is indeed becoming a major challenge as “infodemic” is infecting millions of internet users in northern Nigeria.
#COVID-19 in Northern Nigeria
“As at 11:25 pm 25th March 2020, there are 51 confirmed cases of #COVID19 in Nigeria,” Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control tweeted.
While ten cases have been confirmed in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, only one state in northern Nigeria, Bauchi, has recorded a single case, with the positive test of the state governor. However, a suspected case was first recorded in Katsina State, a patient who returned from Malaysia. Four others were reported in Kano as of March 24, 2020. All these cases were confirmed negative.
Meanwhile, many of the northerners interviewed by HumAngle expressed misgivings about the pandemic. Some believe that only destiny determines if they would contract the virus or not.
One of them, Husseini, a phone accessories seller at Kurmi market in Kano, said, “social distancing is not realistic here. We can’t isolate ourselves. Hunger will kill us if Coronavirus didn’t.”
Infodemics and conspiracy theories
As coronavirus cases jump to over 500 in Saudi Arabia and the country reacts with the plan to impose a three-week curfew to control the pandemic, an audio recording is circulating on WhatsApp in Hausa, claiming that “Muslims wouldn’t be affected by Coronavirus.” This false assertion was backed by an Islamic cleric who declared that the pandemic “is a punishment to non-Muslims.”
In a video uploaded to YouTube, which has since gone rival on WhatsApp and Facebook, Sheikh Yahaya Jingir, a popular and influential cleric in northern Nigeria, was seen addressing hundreds of his followers appealing to their emotion on a conspiracy theory on the virus.
Relying on a doctored video showing Donald Trump pointing at a “picture of Ka’aba,” Jingir claimed that the virus is an American plot to stop Muslims from attending the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
In a region where people treat religion sacredly, any religiously motivated disinformation has a high degree of influence on how the people receive and interpret information. This is perhaps why another audio which claims that the word “corona” was coined by Chinese from the word “Koran” to attack the holy book has continued to trend.
What other clerics are doing
Sheikh Ibrahim Ahmad Makari is a university professor and the Imam of the Central Mosque, Abuja, Nigeria. In a 16-minute video that went viral on social media, the cleric debunked the propagated conspiracy theory. Highly demystifying, his arguments were ladened with facts from Islamic history, noting that a number of the companions of Prophet Muhammad were killed by an epidemic.
“What I want you to know is this #COVID-19 or Coronavirus is true,” Makari, as popularly called, told his audience in Hausa. He emphasised that “it is neither false nor a Western plot as others misinform people.”
According to him, “pandemic is not a joke. Anyone who knows Islamic history has read about Amwat epidemic in the reign of Umar [the second Caliphate of Islam] in which many companions of the Prophet died”
In a similar vein, Sheikh Ibrahim Khalil, a Kano based influential cleric and politician, called upon Muslims to follow the advice of medical doctors and the directives of the federal and state governments. In a message broadcast on local radio stations, the Sheikh said: “It’s compulsory upon all Muslims to follow the advice of experts and medical doctors in responding to the Coronavirus pandemic.”
Are social networks helping it?
Misinformation and conspiracy theories in northern Nigeria’s social media space are largely peddled in Hausa, the lingua franca of the region. This is a major problem that is affecting the strategies of social media companies in combating the flood of misinformation on their platforms.
Facebook, for example, has limited trusted partners in Hausa who report or flag false information on the platform. Although the popular platform has modified its algorithms to promote information from trusted sources and to display fact-checks beneath trending false information, that didn’t reach the millions of Hausa speakers on the platform.
On WhatsApp, which requires little or no technical expertise to use, messages in audio and video format are becoming ways of spreading harmful contents easily to reach a society established on the old concept of social trust.
Maryam, a housewife of about 35, said, she “has no fears of the pandemic” as a message she received on WhatsApp says garlic cures Coronavirus. But if there’s anything, Maryam is showing the ineffectiveness and limitations of fact-checks that was already done by Africacheck, a popular fact-checking website that collaborated with Facebook, in English.
There are many claims of cures for the disease on social media. In a video trending on different platforms, a herbalist was in the middle of the market, circled by a handful of people, making claims that he has a cure for the disease and asking the government to partner with him to stop the pandemic. If left unchecked by authorities, this misinformation might claim more lives than the virus itself.