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by Brian Kimari

Countering fake news around the corona virus is now a major concern globally, and in Kenya. So much so, that popular Kenyan blogger Robert Alai was arrested on 20th March 2020 for claims that the government was concealing information about other patients who had contracted the virus. He was charged under section 22 of the Computer crimes and cyber crimes Act, which extends a two-year prison sentence and/or fine of Kshs. 2 million for any person who intentionally publishes false, misleading, or fictitious data.

In their study on Fake News and the 2017 Kenyan Elections, Patrick Mutahi and Brian Kimari found that fake images, videos, and textual information circulated fuelled tension and alarm. These led to the unnecessary deployment of security forces and humanitarian organisations such as Red Cross for emergency assistance.

This kind of false information could have drastic implications as the country’s resources including medical and security personnel are spread thin, and their movement is discouraged towards containing the virus. If relied upon, false information around issues such as infection control, vaccination, and treatment can also lead people to take action that further spreads the virus.

Fortunately, there have been numerous studies on how to address medical misinformation, a challenge as old as the medical profession.  Conflicting religious, political, cultural and other positions have led many to disregard factual health information. In Kenya, the government faced a lot of opposition from local communities and religious groups following its 2019 mass roll out of the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. Many opposed the campaign targeted at girls ten years and older citing reluctance to accept modern medicine and false claims that the vaccine causes infertility.

However, addressing fake news now has to be understood within the context of the digital era. Unlike the oft-cited Spanish flu of 1918 for example, false information on corona virus circulates more rapidly and to a much wider audience. In our increasingly connected world, control and withholding of the public’s access to information is much harder to accomplish. And thank goodness for that. Social networking sites make every user a publisher of information and with a platform to reach a large population. This citizen journalist is not held to the same standard as trained journalists, who are guided by principles of ethical journalism including truth, accuracy, fairness, and impartiality.

The increasing availability and affordability of Internet data and smart phones means a great number of people have access to information, factual or otherwise. The country currently has 52.0 million internet/data subscriptions and 53.2 million active mobile subscriptions where some users have multiple SIM cards and mobile data accounted for 99.3 of total data subscriptions. This might mean high susceptibility to fake news considering technological advancements and apps such as photoshop and deepfake videos that allow for the creation of fabricated content so close to the original that it may not be discernible.

Combating fake news around the corona virus thus needs to contend with these realities. Through social networking sites, there is sometimes viral spread of fake health news across different platforms, with motives ranging from financial to ideological to uninformed sharing. While laws and regulations, such as that under which Alai is charged, may punish offenders and deter publishing of false information, this is not an effective way to contain the virus. Instead, there should be more focus on preventive approaches especially because fake news may persist or even worsen after correction due to already ingrained prejudices and beliefs.

Prevention should largely take the course of incentivising the publishing of factual information. A key component of this is to ensure availability of authoritative and trusted information that is updated frequently and accessible across different platforms. While Kenya’s health ministry has attempted this through sending bulk SMS to citizens and setting up a call centre, there is need to frequently update the information and use local languages.

The public also needs to be engaged on what kind of information to trust and from whom, including through publishing an approved list of sources such as the World Health Organisation and the Centre for Disease Control. Public education should also include informing the public of the far-reaching effects of sharing fake news, discouraging it, and teaching them how to fact-check and distinguish false from factual information. Further, actors including tech companies should encourage users to counter, flag and take down false information circulated on social media.

There is also need to exercise restraint when publishing information about corona virus, which is still yet to be understood by scientists and numerous developments are expected. There is need for full, accurate, and balanced information that is easily comprehensible to the media and members of the public. Journalists and media houses also need to be guided on how to share scientific information including on their social media platforms. As Mutahi and Kimari observed, “the format of news articles on social media, where thin slices of information on phones and newsfeed windows sometimes with no relevant context, made it difficult to ascertain veracity.” Rather, aligning news headlines, claims, and statements to evidence, and using caveats in health news has been proven to increase accuracy and not affect news uptake and penetration.

Moreover, social media presents a unique opportunity to reach selected audiences through the use of opinion leaders or influencers who can reach them. While users are encouraged to get their news from the official authorities, collaboration with such influencers helps to reach different online communities by tailoring information to their preferences, perceptions and attitudes. A recent study for instance showed that collaboration with mommy bloggers leveraged on their large established networks to communicate vital health information pertinent to women and mothers.

Finally, containing the spread of fake news requires the state and other actors to restore public trust and confidence in health and public institutions through exercising transparency and good judgment. Undoubtedly, withholding and sharing of inaccurate information will drive people to seek out unverified sources. For instance, Dagoretti MP John Kiarie this weekend tweeted information on corona virus claiming: “Kenya Government must forthwith communicate the gravity of the real situation without sugar coating anymore. Let Kenyans know how bad things are about to get.” While the MP apologised for his unverified accounts, we must understand that others will follow suit unless public trust and confidence is rebuilt. The public will be informed. The best we can do is ensure the information is accurate, usable, and balanced.

Brian Kimari is a Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies (CHRIPS) based in Kenya.

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