Coronavirus: The consequences of misinformation and how to avoid it
10 April 2020
Olagunju Abdulrahman FASLN
Separate ‘text’ from ‘context’ and all that remain is a con. Now more than ever, the media is central to our lives, perhaps, our window to the world. It unconsciously shapes our beliefs, mentality and ultimately, most policies that influence the public.
As cases and deaths from the coronavirus pandemic rise; panic, fear and trepidation are on the verge of making people search for its 'cure' from the media. This consequently hoax media platforms to embellish news that invade the lives of innocent people and evoke inexistent situations with the aim to preserve evil for profit. They throw up fake cures such as eating 'alkaline foods', killing the virus with chloroquine, mixing garlic and honey, consuming cow urine, hypothesizing that Africa's generally hot climate will slow the virus and many more.
As weeks pass by, there has been a litany of articles spreading misinformation about the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, from different media platforms; such as the digital contagion based mainly on the fact that the 5G network rolled out in the Chinese city of Wuhan just a few weeks before the coronavirus came on the scene caused the disease because of the electromagnetic fields (EMF) emitted; the bioweapon rumours, temperature as a cure and many more. These self-scripted and self-serving fictions are devastating communities, heightening emotions, sharpening drama of conspiracies and evoking confusion even more than the disease.
Recently, the proliferation of fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic has been labelled a dangerous "infodemic" by WHO which spreads faster and more easily today through the internet, social media, and instant messaging. Indeed, people will be seeking certainty in a time of high uncertainty, anxiety and panic. So it is only natural to more readily accept information that resolves, reassures and provides easy solutions – unfortunately, often in a false way.
However, if a story is more surprising or upsetting than other stories, it is worth double-checking, as fake news will try to grab your attention by being more exaggerated than real stories. So how do we approach science news like a scientist, to see past the sensational and find the facts?
Science-related news is different from other news.
A popular scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it." However, this has been abused by mixing science with fiction. A very pathetic example is an article recently published by 'The Nation'- a popular Nigerian newspaper who reported a professor that claimed to have found a 'cure' to coronavirus disease through energy health medicines superficially meant to boost the human immune system, on the basis of supreme superhuman species whom during their meditation engage in what is known as "Astral Travelling" in which the spirit leaves the body and travel to planets to probe what is there and at times steal certain substances which they bring back to the earth, which he said leads to coronavirus pandemic. An exciting revelation indeed. But if this was such a groundbreaking and impactful development, why did so few other news publishers cover it?
Prof. Joseph Akpa, who is the Provost of Luminar International College of Alternative Medicine, Enugu, Nigeria, provides no scientific evidence for his discovery neither has he published his work in a renowned journal or onto a pre-print database - like AfricArxiv, a community-led digital archive for African research communication- before peer review.
What should media houses do?
Media houses must begin to realise that the domain of medical information differs enormously from that of politics, where free speech must be protected and where exposure to false information does not threaten people's health. However, false, misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 can cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Having had an interview or press briefing with a scientist about his work, there are also a pool of high-profile scholars, an army of scientists, public health officials, lab technicians, doctors, and graduate students who are also working on this problem in government labs, academia, and the private sector, reach out to them and ask for opinions, suggestions and perhaps, the validity of a scientific discovery such as this before making a full-fledged story on them.
How to approach science news?
When fake news, misreporting and misinformation are everywhere, reading the news can be a challenge. Not only there is plenty of misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, and other scientific topics floating around social media, there's also need to read science stories, even well-known publications with caution.
The burden of this misinformation and disinformation from news media are overwhelming people about science. All this leaves ordinary readers to try to work out what is accurate and what isn't, which requires them to read like a scientist even when they are not.
A research done by Doug Specht and Julio Gimenez from the University of Westminster put together six steps that will help you read in a critical way when engaging with scientific information.
They are as follow:
1. The first thing to do is simply be aware of how important information in the original source may be reinterpreted, modified and even ignored altogether depending on what a journalist understands or chooses to present. This is a bit like the game "telephone" where players pass a message to each other through whispering.
2. In particular, you should watch out for big or surprising claims that may be exaggerated (such as giving people a "sixth sense"). Such extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
3. Check how precise and unambiguous the details presented in the article about the research are. Saying that an experiment has proven a particular fact is a lot stronger than saying it suggests that something might happen in the future.
4. Look for a reference or a link to the original source in the report you're reading. If there is one, it's more likely that the journalist has read the original research and understands what it does and doesn't say.
5. Try to check whether the arguments in the article come from the scientists who carried out the research or the journalist. This could mean looking for quotes or comparing with the original research paper, if you can do that.
6. Look to see if other places are reporting the same stories. If only one news outlet is covering an "amazing breakthrough," it might be time to apply a little more skepticism.
Developing these skills could help you discern what sources you should and shouldn't trust, and how to spot when even usually authoritative media outlets sometimes exaggerate or misinterpret things.
Olagunju Abdulrahman is a Physiologist at the Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA), Ondo, Nigeria; he is a fellow of the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN). Opinion expressed in this article are the author`s own -- and do not necessarily reflect the editorial views of Science Communication Hub Nigeria