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Guest column: Fact-checking on coronavirus outbreak

By Vincent Ng’ethe

How should a journalist tell a story about the coronavirus? I would say carefully but assertively. Carefully because making mistakes is easy, yet the consequences are far reaching. Assertively because not only have the facts to be established and explained to the public but also defended.

On December 31, 2019, the Chinese government notified the World Health Organisation about a cluster of pneumonia cases seemingly caused by the coronavirus not known to have previously affected humans.

Soon the world watched as the cases piled up in China, and then spread outside the country, ferried by people who had travelled from Wuhan city in China. 

With the epidemic came an infodemic. The WHO defines an infodemic as “an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not”. Numerous false stories appeared. One claimed that nine people had been infected with the virus in Nigeria, and four had died. But Africa Check found out the story was about Lassa Fever and had been copied almost word for word. In fact, until a case was confirmed in Egypt on February 14, 2020, nobody had tested positive in Africa. 

One Facebook showed pictures of Chinese health workers responding to the coronavirus. But the photo was of health workers in Uganda in 2018. They were under a heightened state of alert following the outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The WHO did not report an outbreak of Ebola in Uganda in 2018.

Then there was a photo showing the State Minister for Foreign Affairs in Sudan apparently wearing a face mask during a meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Sudan, implying that he was worried about contracting the infectious disease from his guest. The meeting took place, but the exact same image carried on both the Sudanese ministry and Chinese embassy websites showed no face masks worn.

Although the disease was only named COVID-19 on February 11, 2019, a host of fake cures such as cannabis, cow’s urine, bleach and garlic have already been peddled, according to the International Fact Checking Network, which organised a joint effort of fact-checkers from 39 countries under the hashtag #CoronavirusFacts

Unproven claims were also made about the presence of a vaccine for COVID-19 (none has yet been approved, though urgent efforts continue) and the successful cure of a coronavirus patient with drugs used to treat HIV ( no evidence of a cure has been published after this treatment, though it has been tried).

The outbreak of COVID-19 made clear how compelling false news can be during a health crisis. It also made clear lessons that Africa Check has previously learnt from checking claims around health.

First, the ground is fertile for misinformation because experts are learning about the disease just as an outbreak unfolds. “Science is inherently uncertain and it is this uncertainty that is exploited by people” Alwyn Scally, a professor of genetics at Cambridge University told the BBC recently.

We also have to think about how readers receive fact-checking.  Studies are finding that those who read fact-checks correcting misinformation often have trouble remembering the corrective information as easily as they remember the falsehoods. So corrective information needs to reinforce the facts.

Catching up with the lie that got halfway round the world while we were wearing our fact-checking shoes means accompanying comprehensive reports with shorter, social media-friendly versions, fit for mobile.  

So, if you receive information that is not verified, don’t press “forward”. Instead, consider  pressing “reply” and asking the sender how he or she knows the claim to be true.

If you are addressing the originator of the claim, you can go further. Ask for credentials and qualifications in the area concerning the claim. Africa Check’s updated Guide to evaluating health claims, quacks and cures is particularly helpful for this.

If, when all is said and done, you must forward a health claim, send it to a physician, a known expert who works in the field, or your country’s health regulator or Ministry of Health. You can also send it to Africa Check. We’ll look into it for you.

Vincent Ng’ethe is the deputy Kenya editor of Africa Check, Africa’s leading independent fact-checking organisation. This article has been written as part of the MoU between Africa Check and the Media Council to mainstream fact-checking in Kenya’s media.  Email: [email protected]

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