Nana Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

By Nana Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

The new coronavirus known as SARS 2 or COVID-19 for short is not the only virus in town. Of course, COVID-19 is deadly and as at now, there is no cure or vaccine against it. However, we know that we can slow its spread and ultimately defeat it if we are diligent in following the prescribed protocols such as wearing our face masks, washing our hands with soap under running water regularly, sainting our hands with alcohol-based hand sanitiser, keeping a social distance of at least two metres and staying at home if we have no serious business outside our homes.

As we are all painfully aware, as at this writing, the pandemic has attacked more than 13,119,239 people, including 573,752 deaths. In Ghana, the figures are 27,667, cases, 23, 249 recoveries and discharges and 148 deaths. But even so, COVID-19 is not the only virus in town. There is an equally deadly disease making the rounds which is fighting against our best efforts against COVID-19.

The prescribed protocols against that virus are not as well-known and therefore very harmful to society. The danger is that one may be passing on this virus all the time without realizing the effects of one’s activities.

This virus is called FAKE NEWS. Fake news has different names and aliases, but whether you call it false information, junk news, pseudo-news, alternative facts or hoax news, it is basically a form of news consisting of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media. Fake news is not new. As long as humans have communicated, the process has been abused with lies, deceit and other forms of trickery. However, people used to indulge in such activities for perceived advantages of one kind or another.

Fake news has become a major fact of life in the digital age. Digital news has made it possible for purveyors of hoax or fake news to reach millions of people around the world within a very short time. The people who indulge in such activities usually publish fake news with the intent to gain financial or political advantage and the tactic is to attract social media users to spread their product which might find its way into the mainstream media.

At no time has fake news spread faster than in the first part of this year as the whole world has laboured under the straining yoke of COVID-19. An article published on the UNESCO Bangkok website makes this point succinctly with evidence: “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen parallel outbreaks of disinformation and misinformation about the virus, ranging from fake coronavirus cures, false claims and harmful health advice to wild conspiracy theories.”

The article goes on to explain that as at the beginning of June, Facebook had reported that “nearly 50 million pieces of content related to COVID-19 had to be flagged in April with warning label for disinformation, while Twitter challenged more than 1.5 million users for spreading false information and displaying ‘manipulative behaviours’ during the same month. Close to 18 million scam emails about the coronavirus are being blocked by Google on Gmail.”

Obviously, whatever the major companies and networks are doing to stop the spread of the disinformation virus needs to be intensified because hundreds of thousands of fake news still get passed around on a daily basis.

Take the case of the “news” about the Indian Student who “had discovered a cure” for COVID-19. The story hit social media early this week with the claim that an Indian student Pondicherry University had discovered a cure for COVID 19. According BOOM, the Indian fact checking site, “an age-old remedy of drinking a mixture of ginger, black pepper and honey to reduce cough is falsely being shared as a cure for COVID-19”. Despite the fact that BOOM and other media quickly declared the story to be false, it found its way around the world through social media within a few hours.

Many people sharing this piece of false information probably believed it to be true and felt that they were contributing to human progress by passing it on. Some may have done it for fun, but whatever was the motive, we have to be concerned that such pieces of disinformation get passed around so quickly and effortlessly. We must treat this seriously because it is not harmless. In any epidemic or pandemic, information becomes a critical response and the quality of information can be the difference between life and death. In Ghana, it is possible that disinformation and reckless conspiracy theories have contributed to the lack of compliance with the protocols that we see in our country.

This is why there is a determined effort by journalists, media houses, media organisations and civil society groups to provide opportunities to counteract fake news with properly checked information. In Ghana, this column and newspapers are part of a project mounted by the Media Foundation for West Africa, which is supported by STAR Ghana with funding from UKAID and the European Union. The project involves some 50 media houses and journalists responding in real time to fake news in the media and enabling social media users to have an antidote to fake news and myths making the rounds about COVID-19.

This effort is not directed only at identifying and correcting fake news but also to enable the communication health advice and quality information through which we can build a national support community to assist those working directly on the frontline against the virus. It is no exaggeration to say that every time anyone posts fake information about COVID on Facebook, WhatsApp or any other site, that person is working for the virus against human progress. We can fight it collectively by observing the prescribed protocols: CHECK BEFORE POSTING. Supported by MFWA Fact-Checking Projected which is supported STAR Ghana with funding from UKAID and the European Union.