Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in 2019, there has been a global co-extending surge of an infodermic of misinformation in managing the COVID-19 crisis.
These misinformations have gained popularity through various platforms, and especially through opinion leaders in societies.
The secretary-general of the United States, UN António Guterres had warned earlier in 2020 that
“Our common enemy is #COVID19, but our enemy is also an “infodemic” of misinformation.
To overcome the #coronavirus, we need to urgently promote facts & science, hope & solidarity over despair & division”
As explained by the global health agency, infomedics happen when people are exposed to an excessive amount of information about a problem, which could make it difficult to identify a solution.
Despite several campaigns and efforts in combating the infodemic, the scourge has transitioned into sabotaging developed interventions to manage and stop the spread of the pandemic, especially the use of vaccines.
President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, cautioned in July that the proliferation of misinformation on social media is a serious problem and “killing people”.
From the magnet theory to the infertility proposition, there have been several conspiracy theories that have no doubt settled into the minds of a portion of the populace.
In March 2021, a report said anti-vaccine activists on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter had reached “more than 59 million followers, making these the largest and most important social media platforms for anti-vaxxers”.
According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), one in two people in Africa agrees that COVID-19 is a planned event by a foreign actor.
According to a household survey done by Nigeria Health Watch, the propagation of misinformation played a significant influence in influencing people’s preliminary decisions about whether or not to get the vaccine.
Jumoke Adedina, a 500 level student of the Federal University of Technology, Minna said she will never take the Vaccine considering all the resources she had garnered from the media about the various potential hazards of the vaccine.
Speaking with Mary Okagbor, the executive director of OkpellaTV, an online community TV in Edo state; she shared that a large percentage of the people in Okpella still do not believe that the virus could kill them.
She received various comments from community members while working on a media campaign to raise awareness in the community, including that the virus was premeditated as part of the schemes to create a new global order.
“It’s taking more effort than I thought, to convince the people of their lopsided conviction”
Some people who have received the vaccine have also had a share of the fear orchestrated by the news consumed from social media.
Mistura Badru, a Chemical Engineer in Lagos state said she was sceptical after watching the COVID-19 vaccine magnet video, but her sister who works as a medical doctor had assured her of the vaccines’ safety.
In a report by African News, Aniette Patrick, a journalist, believes that the issue of trust is a huge challenge for most Nigerians because leadership has been a major challenge and people tend not to trust the system in place.
“In Nigeria, I guess nonchalant attitude is one thing and lack of trust is another, people feel what the government is giving as vaccines may not be the same thing others are receiving, that is the common man understanding and I think that is the major factor,” she added
Vaccine hesitancy is not new in Nigeria, in 2003 five northern states boycotted the oral polio vaccine due to rumour that it was unsafe.
WHO defines Vaccine hesitancy as a delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite the availability of vaccine services.
The quick spread of anti–COVID-19 vaccination material and the normalization of dangerous falsehoods has been a major trigger in the COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
It is not just peculiar to ordinary people, even top political actors have openly expressed their stance that conforms to vaccine hesitancy. For example, former Tanzanian President John Magufuli questioned the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in January 2021, even denying the existence of SARS-CoV-2 in his country.
Also, Wilcox Onyemekeihia, the Secretary of Programmes to the Senior Special Adviser on Youth Affairs in Nigeria’s Cross River state, has maintained remarks that support an anti-vaccine stance on social media.
In March 2021, a popular Nigerian Pastor, Chris Oyakhilome was sanctioned by The Office of Communications in the United Kingdom (Ofcom) for broadcasting misinformation on COVID-19 during his Program.
While traditional media such as newspaper, television, radio have helped to improve COVID-19 campaign, most misinforming messages have stemmed from social media, a medium of communication that has become the default means of accessing information by several people.
As of January 2021, Nigeria alone had approximately 33 million active social media users. A recent data showed that there were 4.48 billion social media users around the world in July 2021, equating to almost 57 per cent of the total global population.
With this population on social media, it becomes necessary for a strong campaign in checking the information spread on the various media.
In a research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, NCBI, the research result showed that 80% of the research correspondents were willing to accept COVID-19 vaccine once it is considered safe and effective.
In late 2020, and early this year awareness campaigns sponsored by government and corporate organizations were all over the media such as the mask up campaign, Powerful H.A.N.D.S, stay safe.
From observation, the COVID-19 vaccine campaign is not very active compared to the previous Covid-19 awareness campaign in its early stage from the government.
During a presentation by Dr Bakanawa Garba Bello, a senior medical officer in the Disease Control and Immunization Department of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) the government has designed rumour management for the COVID-19 response process and vaccine Campaign. Despite these and other efforts, there is still a deficit of government-sponsored media campaigns for the vaccine in the country compared to the misinformation rampaging on the media.
Kingsley Bassey, a Broadcast Journalist and creative Entrepreneur advised that the government has to be creative in its way of designing and puffing the COVID-19 vaccine campaign.
Beyond the bounds of the press conference, and other traditional tactics, he stated that the government needs to explore trends and popular media consumption such as comic content, internet memes to educate the people.
“States like Lagos are doing well with its use of IECs such as billboards, posters, but that is not effective enough to reach locals in the rural communities. You will be surprised at the number of people who do not know about the COVID-19 vaccine yet”.
Oyinkasola Sadiq-Mabeko, a content producer said that the role of the media has moved from just informing to dealing with misinformation, disinformation, and the fake news epidemic especially on platforms like WhatsApp. She added that the media needs to up their game to make sure factual news is just as viral if not more than the fake news.
As regards the present Covid-19 vaccine, she said the acceptance rate is still low. “If the people hear more frequently from the government from various channels, they may be more inclined to receive the dose”.
When Mistura Badru’s body had a reaction to the first dose of the vaccination, she was able to cope with her dread because of a prior understanding of some of the vaccine’s side effects.
Proper information about the vaccine especially on the likely reaction can help people deal with their internalised fear, and reduce dependence on misinformation.
In planning the campaigns, it is important to take into cognisance the different groups in the society, inter alia the non-literate, aged, locals and people living with disabilities when selecting campaign channel, language and tactics.
To deal with the menace of misinformation, Oyinkansola advised media houses to collaborate and complement ongoing efforts of organizations such as Africa Check, Fact Check Hub, and Cable News, which have devoted a desk in their media offices to fact check and verify bogus news.
Initiatives like the International Center for Journalism fellowship for fact-checking should equally be replicated by several media-oriented organizations to combat the fake news epidemic, especially in the social media spaces.
“This OUTBREAK story was supported by Code for Africa’s WanaData program as part of the Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge hosted by l’Agence française de développement (AFD), Expertise France, and The GovLab“