By Hellen Owuor
The emergence of Covid-19 took many by surprise, with the new virus spreading rapidly and introducing the need for extra safety precautions at an unprecedented level. The novelty of the virus, as well as the lack of information about its nature or behavior, gave room to a cloud of misinformation and conspiracy theories that many took as gospel truth. These conspiracy theories have caused and continue to cause confusion and mistrust among people, countries, governments, and their citizens, contributing to the covid-19 infodemic.
One year down the line, several vaccines have been developed to prevent the spread of this pandemic. However, the widespread misinformation on covid-19 is slowing down efforts of governments and health practitioners to contain and eradicate the virus. As is the case in some countries, Kenya has seen the rise of misinformation, with many sharing some of these myths and false claims, believing them to be true.
For the better part of 2020 when Covid-19 hit Kenya, the country was under lockdown. This meant less interpersonal interaction, as well as an increased reliance on social media for information. According to DataReportal, the number of social media users in Kenya increased by 2.2 million from 2020. That is 11 million social media users by January 2021. With this in mind, it is safe to say that the key avenue for the distribution of misinformation about covid-19 in Kenya has been through social media.
Social media has enabled people to access information and connect from anywhere in the world. This is beneficial, but at the same time, it has made it easy for those spreading false claims, especially with malicious intent, to reach their targets and cause harm to unsuspecting citizens, preying on fear and a lack of information on Covid-19 to drive their agenda. Spreading of misinformation begins from a specific person, group, or entity with ill-intentions to gain or harm another group for political, social, or individual gain.
Once false information gets into the hands of vulnerable and unknowing citizens, it only takes one click, a retweet, share or repost on social media or through a messaging app to further spread the false information, and this is difficult to undo once in motion.
Young people comprise the largest proportion of the population in Kenya. Out of the 11 million social media users, 70.8% are Facebook users aged 18-34 years (Statcounter). Between May 2020 and May 2021, Facebook was recorded as the most used social media platform followed by Twitter (Statcounter). On average, users aged 16-64 spend at least 3 hours per day on social media. That translates to at least 90 hours per month per person. Think of how much unverified false information may be consumed or shared in one month and the extent of damage it may cause.
As it is, misinformation is a considerable threat to the lives and health of Kenyans, and many myths about Covid-19 spread in the country in 2020, including claims that the disease does not affect Africans because of their skin color and environment, that it only affects the rich, that it can be cured using traditional herbs, that it was made in a lab in Wuhan, China, and many more.
The main impact of this information was apathy, with people going about their daily activities thinking that Covid-19 didn’t exist, or that it was not as serious a threat as had been claimed, thereby exposing themselves to more harm leading to a quick rise in infections and strained resources.
Following the development and introduction of vaccines, the misinformation trend has shifted away from the origins of the disease to the vaccines themselves. Some of the most common false beliefs are that the vaccines cause infertility, they cause blood clots in everyone who receives them, that those who are vaccinated are likely to die in 2 years, that the vaccine contains a tracking microchip and many others. These myths have resulted in the hesitance of Kenyans to take vaccines. As of May 2021, Kenya was ranked number 22 in Africa for the number of administered covid-19 vaccine doses per hundred people. Compared to the highest ranking, Seychelles, which had 136.74 doses administered per hundred people, Kenya had only1.8 (Statista). It is saddening to see the power of misinformation as the covid-19 misconceptions persist, not only in rural areas but also in urban areas where there is more access to information.
This article is a call-to-action for the youth to fight Covid-19 misinformation, being the largest of the population, the most educated, and also the most technology-savvy, can protect themselves and others by ensuring that they can verify that any news about Covid-19 is true before sharing. They can do this by identifying and debunking false information shared online about Covid-19, as well as sharing pointers about media and information literacy with others.
Young people can also combine their efforts with thought and opinion leaders to conduct capacity-building activities in rural areas, constantly updating the residents of new developments and debunk misinformation. To ensure success, the youth should be aware of credible sites where they can get trusted and verified information about Covid-19, such as the WHO, UNICEF, and CDC. To be fully equipped at an individual level, there are also some courses and learning materials available online that they can use to learn how to identify and demystify misinformation on Covid-19 for example “Hands-On Fact-Checking: A Short Course” by the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute and the American Press Institute.
In this fight against misinformation, the youth should be suspicious of any information they read or hear about Covid-19 regardless of it being shared by a close friend, politician, opinion leader, or family member. Before sharing, they should take these seven steps to ensure they are not contributing to the spread of misinformation:
1) Check whether the source of information is credible and if other related credible sites have the same information.
2) Confirm whether the sources contained in the texts or content are trustworthy, analyze the language used as well as the date of publishing.
3) Check the author of the articles and their track record in their profession.
4) For images, you can conduct a reverse image search.
5) Keenly look at the statistics, whether the datasets are complete and corresponding.
6) Be objective and liberal when conducting your investigations.
With a commitment towards protecting Kenyans from misinformation, we will move a step further in our fight against Covid-19 as well as prepare ourselves in case of future pandemics.
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) program, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and Africa Uncensored. For more information on ARN, please visit the ARN site.