As misinformation on coronavirus surges, funding trickles in

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Silhouettes of laptop and mobile device users against a screen projection of WhatsApp’s logo. Photo by: REUTERS / Dado Ruvic

LONDON/NEW DELHI — On March 20, as millions of Indians planned to go on a 14-hour lockdown, a peculiar message started doing the rounds on WhatsApp and other social media. Coronavirus only survives on surfaces for 12 hours, and hence the 14-hour curfew will “break the chain,” the message stated, promising a “safer country” after the curfew is lifted. While far from true, misinformation such as this has engulfed India as public health professionals struggle to contain the outbreak.

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The claim was debunked by Alt News, a fact-checking website on Saturday. “We've seen this over and over again that misinformation surges when emotions run high,” Alt News co-founder Pratik Sinha told Devex.

“Right messaging from scientists gets diluted in a sea of misinformation.”

— Srinath Reddy, president, PHFI

However, misinformation about COVID-19 is not limited to India. “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last month. Even as the U.K. Department for International Development has pledged £500,000 ($579,000) worth of funding to programs, countries around the world are struggling to curb false remedies and promises with limited support. 

In India, misleading advisory from the government

In late January, as governments around the world went into a huddle to come up with the best response to COVID-19, the Indian government issued an unusual health advisory — a public safety note endorsed Homeopathic medicines for prevention of coronavirus infections.

The note came from AYUSH Ministry, mandated with promoting traditional branches of medicine such as Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy. On Jan. 29, the misinformed health advisory recommended a specific dose of Arsenicum album 30, daily on empty stomach for three days — which had no scientific backing.

So far, Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s response to the public health emergency has been mercurial. While the health ministry is working closely with the World Health Organization, and health organizations including the Public Health Foundation of India to launch a coordinated response, another arm of the government — AYUSH Ministry — has been at the center of a large-scale misinformation campaign that undermines the health ministry’s response, experts have warned.

“The health-related misinformation — about what to treat COVID with — grew on WhatsApp after AYUSH Ministry prescribed the treatment, and snowballed as the pandemic got closer. It also became more political,” Alt News’ Sinha said.

Via Facebook.

Even as scientists are learning about the infection and mortality rate of the disease, Suman Haripriya, a politician from the leading Bharatiya Janata Party from the northeastern state of Assam, told the public that, "coronavirus is an airborne disease and it can be cured by using 'gaumutra' or cow urine, and cow dung."

Speaking at a yoga festival, nationalist politician Yogi Adityanath said yoga could cure coronavirus. He is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with 200 million people. Twenty-seven people have tested positive in his state. As of March 22, India had reported 415 positive cases with seven deaths.

Misinformation not only spreads rumors, but also hides the knowledge that needs to reach people.

“During a public health emergency, social media is emerging as a fertile ground for people to speculate and spread all kinds of misinformation. Right messaging from scientists gets diluted in a sea of misinformation. It has encouraged speculation and that is where the damage actually lies,” Srinath Reddy, president at PHFI told Devex.

“Our communications team is constantly deciding on whether to respond and how.”

— Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, director-general, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control

Nigeria’s lessons from Ebola

Nigeria, which currently has 36 cases, had its first experience in dealing with misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, a period in which rumors — such as saltwater could cure Ebola — made the rounds.

About six years later, government officials said it has become even more difficult to deal with misinformation regarding COVID-19, as sources of wrong information seem to be intentional about misinformation. However, the health ministry and the establishment in charge of disease response are taking on misinformation by holding daily news conferences on COVID-19, intensifying facts output, ensuring prompt dissemination of developments related to the disease, publishing situation reports, engaging the media, and directly responding to inquiries related to the disease.

The Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, told Devex that the center, which is coordinating Nigeria’s response to COVID-19, is also dealing with the task of informing the public and staying ahead of misinformers.

“It is now at the heart of our responsibility to make sure Nigerians are well informed and have credible information to rely on,” he told Devex in Abuja.

However, Ihekweazu revealed that the center sometimes decides not to respond to some misinformation to avoid giving the misinformers a platform to further mislead more people.

“Our communications team is constantly deciding on whether to respond and how. Some of the time we say ‘we are not responding to this’ because sometimes by responding you give people the energy to go further than where they’ve gone,” he told Devex.

Aderinola Olaolu, deputy incident manager of Nigeria’s coronavirus emergency operation center, told Devex that some fake stories are too ridiculous to be believed and as such, should be ignored.

But Ihekweazu said that there is an intentional strategy behind misinformation surrounding COVID-19 in Nigeria, and this is being aided by poor public knowledge of science.

“There is a fundamental lack of understanding of how science works in our community,” he said.

Several of the messages being pushed via social media were carefully designed to go viral, he said. The center had to grow its communications unit. It established a crisis communications team while also keeping track of conversations around the disease relevant to Nigerians. There is also a busy toll-free call centre in addition to information dissemination via radio and social media.

Big tech offers support

Major tech companies are also lending helping hands. Searching for coronavirus on Google provides links to dedicated WHO pages on the disease. In Nigeria, similar searches on Twitter result in messages directing users to NCDC’s website and official Twitter page.

Facebook has also introduced similar features. The tech giant said it has provided ad credits to WHO and NCDC so the organizations can run campaigns on coronavirus education on the site.

In spite of the encrypted nature of messaging on WhatsApp, Facebook said it is still making efforts to address the sharing of COVID-19 misinformation via WhatsApp, and it is hoping to address this by making it difficult for users to send viral messages through the medium.

Funding to fight misinformation

To identify and counter the rapid spread of misinformation around COVID-19, DFID has pledged £500,000. The money will go to the Humanitarian-to-Humanitarian Network, who have partnered with BBC Media Action, Translators without Borders, Internews, and Evidence Aid.

Ensuring people know where to turn when they need information is a critical element of addressing the pandemic, according to Caroline Sugg, director of strategy and partnerships at BBC Media Action.  

The organizations are drawing on valuable experience learned during the 2015 Ebola outbreak. But the current pandemic has seen “unprecedented levels of misinformation both online, in communities and in mass media,” Sugg said.

Harmful misformation about COVID-19 identified by BBC Media Action includes rumors the disease can be prevented by shaving beards or drinking salt water, and that people can self diagnose by holding their breath.

While the development community is well aware of the dangers of misinformation, Sugg also highlighted risks associated with a hasty response and stressed the need for programs to be strategic in what they address. A critical part of BBC Media Action’s work is finding out what misinformation is being widely circulated and what isn’t.

“If there’s a rumour but it isn’t being widely shared there’s a risk you amplify that [in responding to it],” she said.  

The sheer volume of misinformation online also means that it is important to get people to think critically about what they are reading. Sugg said the organization's output is aimed at “encouraging audiences to really … interrogate the source of content before either believe it or share it.”

Translators Without Borders is working to translate reliable information from agencies, including WHO, into 12 languages “but that's expanding really quickly and changing over time,” said TWB’s executive director, Aimee Ansari.

TWB is also monitoring misinformation online and relaying the information, including what language misinformation is in, to organizations “that have the correct information, like WHO and IFRC” Ansari said. The group then translates the right information for the agencies to disseminate, and also publish it through their own social media channels.

The large number of agencies and government departments sending out health messaging has led to a crowded field, which the anti-misinformation programming must carefully work around.

“It’s about staying on top of who else is doing what, what the rumors are, what the concerns and worries that a particular community has, and then how the government advice is changing by the hour, to make sure we’re on top of that,” Sugg said.

Curbing the infodemic of “misguided, false and alarming messages” put out by uninformed people is important, and panic will not help, WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan told Devex in an emailed response.

“[Panic] will hinder the response. Regular and accurate information to the public, explaining the approach to the control of the outbreak, based on [the] current state of epidemiology and transmission, will help calm fears,” she said.

Editor’s note: Additional reporting from Nigeria by Paul Adepoju.

About the authors

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process.
  • Vidya Krishnan

    Vidya Krishnan is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who writes about health, human rights, and gender in South Asia.