By Ephraims Sheyin
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, while featuring on the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) Forum last week, decried the rising spate of fake news and misinformation on the Coronavirus pandemic, and regretted that the trend was distracting the war against the scourge.
He said that government was particularly worried about unverified local therapies circulating in the social media as cure to COVID-19, when in actual fact, no known cure had been developed for it.
“If you go by Whatsapp platform, there are so many myths and cure for COVID-19 today.
“Some people will tell you that it cannot affect Africans; some say the disease does not even exist at all, while some will claim that all one needs to do is to take garlic, take ginger.
“The tragedy of fake news is that people get confused by it which may affect their attitude to the efforts to contain the disease,’’ he said.
He particularly chided clerics who were dismissing covid-19 as a hoax, and cited a case in Plateau where some youths took to the streets to protest the move to ban congregational religious services after their cleric told them that there was nothing like coronavirus.
“In Katsina, an entire Police Station was burnt down by an irate mob that felt angered that they were not allowed to attend the Friday Juma’at service.
“What we have found out is that these people read and hear fake news about the disease and believe everything, this affects how they handle a very deadly matter.
“We must all rise against fake news because it is killing more people than the virus itself,’’ he said.
Mohammed regretted that the social and conventional media were all involved in the ugly trend.
“The media even goes beyond spreading fake news and sensationalizes their reports on those who had contacted the virus.
That posture is dangerous because it does not encourage people to come out for testing,’’ he said.
The minister called for a more professional approach, especially by the conventional media, so as to enlighten Nigerians on what was required of them in the fight against the scourge that had enveloped the entire world, infecting more than 1.33 million people and killing 74,000 others.
But it was not the first time the minister drew the attention of the media to the need to be circumspect of what they publish, and desist from dishing out fake news aimed at frustrating efforts of government in the fight against the pandemic.
Just last week, he had to refute a media report that 26 American arrived at the Murtala Muhammed Inter¬national Airport (MMIA), Lagos, without screening for Coronavirus.
The Minister, in that refutation, explained that contrary to the media claims, the 26 Americans were screened by the Port’s health authority and the immigration, while the crews that flew them in and out of the country did not disembark from the aircraft.
“I am aware about the history of the 26 passengers and I have placed a call to the head of Port health services who denied the report.
“We have problems with the crude oil production in the Bonga field, so they made an application for the expatriates to come into the country and carry out some emergency repairs.
“They met with the Port Health Authority and personnel of the immigration service who screened them. We have the records to show that they were screened,” he said.
The Minister explained that the rule on border closure is that if any aircraft must come to the country on emergency, it must come in with two crews for inbound and outbound flights.
“Any flight approved to come into the country now must come with two crews so that there will be no way any of the crew member will get down and interact.
“But if they must come down, they must go into 14 days quarantine,” he explained.
The Minister cautioned the media to desist from publishing fake news that could demoralise those at the frontline of the fight against Coronavirus.
“It is wrong for the media to be publishing fake news that will frustrate the efforts of not just government, but the frontline people in this fight which include health workers, the immigration and others.
“They are the ones at the highest risk of infection when they make those sacrifices to save the country. It is wrong for a newspaper to report with a banner headline that they did not do their jobs when in actual fact, they did.
“Another implication of this, which the newspapers did not know, is that they have presented to the entire world, that Nigeria is not taking this fight serious,” he said.
Mohammed reiterated that a major challenge competing with the concerted efforts at fighting Covid-19 is fake news surrounding the epidemic that have remained unabated.
Indeed, the purveyors of fake news have continued to hurl lots of lies into the system with some alleging recently that members of the Presidential Task Force for the Control of Coronavirus (Covid-19), were already sharing monies donated by corporate bodies and individuals to support the fight against the pandemic.
Mohammed, a member of the task force, while reacting to this, declared the allegation as “total falsehood’’.
“As I speak with you, we are yet to receive any money from the funds donated by the private sector towards the fight against Covid-19 pandemic. Not even one kobo.
“There are already calls for probe. Some Non-Governmental Organisations want us probed for how we spent monies we have not even seen.
“I can say without any fear that as of this moment, the task force has not received a kobo from anybody.
“The only money we will be able to account for is whatever money we receive from the federal government.’’
Like Mohammed, Bishop Ignatius Kaigama of the Abuja Catholic Archdiocese has cautioned Nigerians against relying on the social media for information on the dreaded pandemic.
“What one reads in the social media is confusing. You have several people claiming to have cured the disease, while others prescribe all manners of things.
“When we rely on such fake news and start self-medication, your matter gets worse and you become helpless when you eventually reach out for the actual treatment.
“Again, because of the nature of the disease, when you remain at home taking drugs prescribed by “social media medical experts’’, you would have spread it across to a lot of others, including very close family relations, before you realise your folly,’’ he said.
The Association of Psychiatrists of Nigeria (APN), has added a new dimension to the menace by revealing that fake news on Covid-19 pandemic could cause significant emotional distress to Nigerians and increase the rate of mental health problems.
Dr Taiwo Sheikh, its National President, told newsmen recently that the pandemic was a stressful period with many Nigerians nursing the fear of being infected, losing loved ones or dying.
“The impact of Covid-19 presents new and unique challenges. The pandemic has affected Nigerians in various ways ranging from lifestyle changes, enforced shutdowns, economic losses, family dislocations and separations.
“Unfortunately, the situation is compounded by fake news, alarming reports and stories as well as videos and pervasive media coverage that is causing significant emotional distress to many people.
“All of the above result in a situation where individuals, who are vulnerable, may develop mental health problems, while those with existing mental health challenges may experience the worsening of their symptoms.
“Thus, people may suffer in many ways without actually contracting the Covid-19 virus,” he said.
Worried analysts have expressed similar fears and concerns over the activities of fake news merchants and the debilitating effects of the trend on Nigerians.
The instances are just everywhere. Aside from the fake news, photos or videos are purposefully created and spread to confuse and misinform. Photos or videos are also manipulated to deceive, while old pictures are often shared as new.
In some cases, photos from other shores are shared in the Nigerian space, ostensibly to create the impression that they are local scenes.
Commenting on the trend recently, Prof. Umar Pate, Head, Mass Communication Department, Bayero University, Kano, described it as “dangerous, unethical, provocative and subversive to peace, progress and societal serenity’’.
“Fake news misinforms and misdirects society with severe consequences on individual and national systems. It heightens tension, builds fear and mistrust among people.’’
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has echoed similar worry.
“Fake news will make media practice lose its appeal; it will challenge the credibility which is the base of journalism practice,” he said recently.
He called on editors to consciously take back the space by infusing online media practice with traditional and professional competence, to right the wrongs in the industry.
“Some people must take up the role of speaking against the bastardisation of journalism by the new media,’’ he declared.
Osinbajo called for the resuscitation of investigative journalism to tackle national challenges and help government plan better, noting specifically that the advent of the new media had increased misinformation through the spread of fake news and other negative reports that often cause confusion, disaffection and disunity.
“Editors must evolve strategies that will keep journalism in its place as the digital media appears to be moving away from the newsroom to the clouds,’’ he said.
He regretted that the role of the newspaper was gradually being usurped as the print media continued in its pursuit of traffic, rather than accuracy, and urged stakeholders to equip newsrooms with gadgets and technologies that could detect and remove fake images from news items, while emphasising the need for accurate, fair, balanced and objective reportage at all times.
But, as stakeholders strive to minimise the incidences of fake news, analysts have suggested a deeper look into why it is getting more common and becoming the norm.
According to Dr Peter Aziga, a communication expert “fake news is partly caused by the absence, or late arrival of, official information, which creates a vacuum filled by rumours and imaginations.’’
To curb such lapse in the specific case of the fight against coronavirus, Mohamed, the Information Minister, has advised Nigerians to get authentic information from the Presidential Task Force’s daily briefing and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC)’s site.
“Nigerians must avoid visiting fake news sites, particularly reporterspress.ng.com,’’ the Minister told newsmen.
He has also advised Nigerians to listen to the experts, especially from the Ministry of Health, so as not to be deceived in these tough moments when everyone required information to make informed decision.
Analysts, while agreeing with Mohammed, have advised readers, listeners or viewers to always check multiple sources, and try to establish trusted brands over time.
They have also advised Nigerians to use various verification tools, with news content managers encouraged to check and think, before broadcasting or publishing.