Coronavirus: Kenya’s first digital pandemic
On February 2, the World Health Organization dubbed the new coronavirus an "infodemic", referring to “an overabundance of information (some accurate and some not) that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.
As long as there have been viral outbreaks, there has been misinformation about them, but this "infodemic" is a distinction that sets the coronavirus apart from viral outbreaks of the past.
Like many parts of the world, Kenya has not been left behind and a little over a month later, the coronavirus has now been confirmed amongst multiple individuals in the country. Addressing misinformation has been a chief priority for the government, the media and health agencies.
Misinformation about Covid-19 is as dangerous as the virus itself. Real human life is at stake and Kenya’s internet is swamped with hysteria and falsehood.
Since the virus took hold of the mainstream narrative in Kenya, we have begun observing trends in misinformation in Kenya’s cyberspace.
One thing that is clear is that when health crises become the subject of the political arena and our news cycle, health misinformation and political misinformation flow through the same nerve endings. The same notorious Facebook groups, Twitter handles and websites that bring about political misinformation are key conduits of coronavirus misinformation.
Earlier this week, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) announced that they had arrested Elijah Muthui Kitonyo, from Mwingi, for publishing misleading and alarming information about the Coronavirus on Twitter. Elijah may have been caught but log in to Twitter and you’ll get a sense that there are many Kenyans getting away with spreading falsehoods on the platform.
Take Donald Kipkorir, for example, a prominent Nairobi lawyer with a large Twitter following. He released a tweet stating that blacks don’t get coronavirus. A statement that clearly isn’t true and that has been fact-checked before.
Many don’t want to admit Blacks don’t get Coronavirus.”
The tweet got more than 900 interactions and many of his followers could be seen to echo his sentiments to their own audiences.
Despite this, many members of his audience also took to twitter to castigate him for making such claims.
Twitter recently committed to removing misinformation about the coronavirus from its platform. One of its new rules is to ban content that “Claims that specific groups or nationalities are never susceptible, or are more susceptible, to Covid-19”. As at the time of writing this, Mr Kipkorir’s tweet was still on the platform.
Conspiracy theories have also been common amongst audiences on Twitter. One of the most popular ones by far being that coronavirus is a bioweapon created in a lab.
Tweets about this conspiracy alone have got thousands of retweets and have ended up entering our information systems.
Another conspiracy theory is that a passage from the 1981 book The Eyes of Darkness predicted the coronavirus. Pictures of the passage went viral in Kenya, prompting local media even to fact-check it.
As such, the awareness of these conspiracy theories is very high amongst many Kenyans you talk to who have a stable enough Internet connection.
The open nature of Twitter creates a sort of butterfly effect – a tweet from one corner of the globe world and from anyone can go viral in another completely different corner. It essentially makes the globe in its entirety a Petri dish for misinformation.
Lies are running across the world faster and further, before the truth even has a chance to put on its shoes. The same interconnectedness that makes the Internet such a gem in this way works against us.
Fake news websites known for spewing political misinformation or disinformation have been filled with countless pieces of falsehoods about Covid-19, their aim being to take advantage of Kenyans’ voracious appetite for answers in this time.
A fake news website, ab-tc.com, published a story about JKUAT students discovering a vaccine for the coronavirus. PesaCheck fact-checked the claim and it was taken down. A site called Nairobi-times reported that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda had postponed elections due to the coronavirus.
In light of how news about celebrities getting infected has been making the news of late, hoaxes to do with several celebrities have already come up. Larry Madowo, Kipchumba Murkomen, Vera Sidika and Muhoho Kenyatta have all had false claims being made about them having the virus.
Fake news funded by real ads
Two of the sites we mentioned above (254 news and Kenya Today), make money through Google AdSense placements. Google has been reported to be doing its best to fight coronavirus misinformation, with searches related to the virus now triggering a “Covid-19 Alert”. It’s a puzzle however, as to how it allows its tools to be used to fund websites that spread misinformation about Covid-19.
Data we collected showed us ads by brands such as Safaricom, Absa, SBT japan, GeoPoll and Honda. We were even shown hoax job ads by scammers asking us to pay KSh450 to be shortlisted for positions at Tuskys and USAid. So not only is Google’s AdSense advertising being used to fund the production of coronavirus misinformation, it’s also being used to push scams to Kenyan citizens through the same misinformation.
Facebook hasn’t been left behind in this "infodemic". The platform’s groups function in particular has been notorious for facilitating the spread of coronavirus misinformation.
Groups like Kilimani Mums udaku zone,Kenya political forum and Group Kenya are routinely found to contain false information being posted by several Facebook users about the coronavirus.
Additionally, just like Twitter, Facebook further shows how Kenya is now part of the global Petri dish of misinformation. Its citizens are not just part of local Facebook groups but global ones as well. Fuelled by a distrust of institutions and media, the chain of misinformation about the virus also often starts here. Many of these groups are choke-full of Covid-19 misinformation.
Spot checks we made on some groups that span international audiences found Kenyans being highly active members in these spaces.
Facebook is, however, doing something about misinformation thanks to its partnerships with local third-party fact checkers such as PesaCheck and Africa Check. But the sheer volume of misinformation on the platform presents a huge challenge.
A simple search for groups made by Kenyans on Facebook led us to Coronavirus Red Alert Kenya, a group administered by the Facebook profile with the name “Hon Justine”. The group has 1090 members at the time of this writing. Scrolling through its feed reveals a lot of misinformation being shared by its members. You can see the examples below.
Many admins of political groups are also now changing the titles of their groups to include “coronavirus” because they know Kenyans are searching for information on the term on Facebook. There is great potential to turn such groups into cesspits of misinformation.
Of all the above technologies, messaging platforms present the biggest challenge for stakeholders.
WhatsApp especially has come under renewed scrutiny over misinformation that is spreading. Given the app's encrypted nature, stakeholders are struggling to track the spread of coronavirus falsehoods as WhatsApp messages can only be seen by the sender and the recipient. To combat this, WhatsApp and WHO have set up a health alert line to answer questions from the public about the virus.
Covid-19 may be new, but the kind of conspiracy theories and misinformation that have come to define it are not.In such times of uncertainty, intensified emotions and information vacuums combine to create the one thing that makes misinformation effective: fearful minds.
Misinformation promises answers and explanations that Kenyans desperately want, but can’t find through normal, factual means.The public will look for alternative sources of information when there is a deficiency in their regular ones.
Just as coronavirus prevention measures such as social distancing and washing your hands begin with you, preventing the spread of misinformation also starts with you. Don’t share false information. Think before you post, verify before you share.