On Friday, March 13 at around 11 am, I received about 25 WhatsApp messages – all on the president’s announcement regarding two more confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country. Two hours later, images of panic shoppers in a local supermarket filled my timeline. The bubbling lava underneath the surface had erupted – Kenyans were officially in panic mode.
There was a meme saying that WhatsApp is the leading cause of the fast global spread of Covid-19 – and I agree. Even before Kenya had confirmed its first case, we all knew it was coming. According to NewsWhip, a predictive media intelligence company, many of the coronavirus stories getting shared on social media are packaged to drive fear rather than build an understanding about the illness.
An example is a viral video on WhatsApp showing men and women "intentionally spreading the virus by coughing on strangers". The video had no date stamp and was not verified – probably a prank video from years back. The fact that the ‘pranksters’ had characteristic Asian features may have caused people to believe it was authentic and real, due to the origin of the virus.
It is easy to say that we should keep tabs on what official media are broadcasting or publishing on the pandemic, but the digital age has brought challenges with it. In this era of fake news, unsolicited information spreads like wildfire. Everyone feels like they can be a journalist, racing to get a scoop on trending topics – with no regard of the source of their content.
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This has pushed governments, including Kenya, to enforce strict laws on the internet and cyber-related offences. On Monday, DCI detectives arrested a man in Mwingi, Kitui County, over claims of publishing misleading coronavirus information. According to the Kenya Cyber Crimes Act 2018, anyone publishing information that is calculated or results in panic is liable to a fine not exceeding Sh5 million or 10-year imprisonment, or both. Now more than ever, citizens need to be vigilant about what they post or share on social media.
Don’t get it twisted, I’m not saying social media is the cause of fear and uncertainty in most people, but it is a driver. The more you consume negative information, the more anxiety, fear, and paranoia grows within you. There is a link between mental health and social media use. This, according to experts, might be positive or negative, depending on the age and demographic of the population.
Health institutions and government agencies are continually calling on citizens to remain calm despite the global pandemic. President Uhuru Kenyatta has even called for a national day of prayer to help citizens turn to a higher power for serenity and assurance. Social media organisations are also trying their best to call hoax on inaccurate information.
WhatsApp users were recently put on alert about a new hoax message that claims freshly boiled garlic water can cure coronavirus. There is currently no specific treatment for the virus and such messages can cause more harm than good. Google and other online platforms have been actively trying to root out misinformation about coronavirus. Instagram even introduced a feature where you cannot view content that has been reported to be misleading.
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In equal measure, accurate information on the illness is being shared. There is a rise in the number of individuals and organisations sharing facts on the illness and how to protect yourself and loved ones. Many have taken to packaging FAQs and related documents into creative visual aids that are not only easy to share but also attractive to read.
Now more than ever, we be careful of the information we post on social media. Here are a few ways you, as a citizen, can play a role in ensuring accurate information is shared.
Some of the fake news being spread is from people claiming that the messages are from a ‘friend’. Do your due diligence and question the information. Search on Google and see if the information is being reported elsewhere, and if so, is the information from a verified source.
Get the whole story – don’t go for the headline and run with it. Take your time, read the whole story and see if it has any further details.
Finally, see how you feel after reading it. Most messages right now are designed to induce fear making you more likely to share it. If you have an eerie or weird feeling about it, first check to see if it really is true.
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Do your part – think before you click. And remember to wash your hands!
Ms Oyola is the Communications Manager, East Africa at Aga Khan University. [email protected]