The COVID-19 fake news tragedy

Following the resumption of passenger transport services between Nairobi and Mombasa on 7th June, a post appeared on a popular Facebook page in Taita Taveta saying that arrivals at Voi bus park were being taken into quarantine.


The post caused uncertainty because the President had stated that the government would not stop people from travelling in or out of Nairobi and Mombasa. News that people arriving in Voi were being taken into quarantine was therefore at odds with the President’s directive.


The post turned out to be fake news. Nobody had been arrested and put into quarantine. It was however not the first case of fake news on Covid-19 in Taita Taveta county. Neither is it the only case of fake Covid-19 news in Kenya. The entire world is facing an ongoing pandemic of disinformation regarding Covid-19. Fake news can result in people getting attacked on suspicion of spreading the illness, or people taking dangerous chemicals thinking it will protect them from infection.


Fake news has existed since the beginning of history. People lie if there is something to be gained from it. Often, there is no material benefit in spreading fake news but some perpetrators get a perverse sense of pleasure in fooling the society. Today, mobile phone technology makes it easier to spread fake news to a very large audience. The ability to share fake news on social media makes it very difficult to control. Anyone can go online and say anything without presenting evidence.


Conspiracy theories

Then there are the corona virus conspiracy theories. Almost everybody has come across text and videos attempting to explain the origins of the Covid-19 virus. Conspiracy theories claim to explain how some billionaires have hatched a plot to rule the world. Celebrities are often linked to such plots but most of what is predicted by conspiracy theories rarely becomes a reality. The world is a very complicated mix of races, ethnicities, culture, religion and economics. It is impossible for a single group of people to rule the entire world no matter how much money they have. The infamous “Illuminati” was banned in the 18th century and does not exist as an organization.


Confirmation bias

People are fearful about the future and it is natural to look for answers. There are people that believe Covid-19 poses a real threat to human life. On the other hand, there are people that say Covid-19 is no different from the flu. People favor information that confirms their beliefs regarding current events, politics, religion, race and ethnicity even when that information is false.


Selective exposure to information

Selective exposure refers to the tendency to look for and believe information which reinforces pre-existing beliefs. The increasing numbers of media outlets (radio, television, newspapers) has resulted in each media outlet specializing in the beliefs of its owners and excluding divergent opinions. There are media outlets that appeal to conservatives while others appeal to liberals. The media is no longer fair and independent. Consumers should expose themselves to different news sources in order to get views from all sides.


How to tell truth from fake news

Who or what is the source of the story? Can the source be trusted? Recently, Ezekiel Mutua, head of the Kenya Film Classification Board, was tricked by a satirical news website which claimed that Kenyans take the lead in online bullying. Before believing a story, find out if there are other sources with similar information. If the information does not appear on other sources, it’s probably fake.

There is a lot of information online about about cures or vaccines for Covid-19. In Iran, over 300 people died after consuming methanol following rumours online that the chemical will protect them from Covid-19. There are herbalists selling concoctions they say can protect users from infection. Such information should be cross-checked with a health professional.

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