Africa and tech giants join forces to fight coronavirus fake news

Governments across Africa are teaming up with technology giants including Facebook and WhatsApp to fight misinformation about coronavirus on social media platforms that could propel the pandemic on a continent with shaky health-care systems.

SA, which has more infections than any other African country, with 1,462 confirmed cases, has an information service about the coronavirus on WhatsApp.

In Nigeria, health officials are partnering with the messaging service owned by Facebook to send push notifications to users with advice on symptoms and how to avoid infection.

The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) is also getting free ad space on Facebook for outreach about the pandemic, a benefit available to public health authorities in 11 other African countries, and about the world.

Twitter has been tweaking its algorithm to elevate medical information from authoritative sources — an initiative available in 70 countries, including five in Africa.

“There has never been a more critical time than now for us to leverage  social media in sending out the right message,” said Chikwe Ihekweazu, who heads the NCDC.

But governments and tech firms face an uphill battle as the virus spreads, unfounded rumours are proliferating across multiple platforms.

“Blacks don’t get coronavirus,” said one erroneous tweet, which was posted by a user in Kenya with nearly 700,000 followers.

Some governments are now resorting to punitive measures.

In Kenya, at least two men, including a popular blogger, have been arrested for publishing false information about the virus on Twitter, an offence punishable by up to 10 years in prison or a fine of 5-million Kenyan shillings ($48,000). Neither has been charged.

SA introduced a law in March that makes sharing malicious falsehoods about the virus punishable by up to six months in jail.

Public health officials worry such posts will drive up the number of infections on a continent beset by overburdened health facilities.

Bogus rumours that foreign aid workers were bringing Ebola into communities hampered the response to two major outbreaks in Africa in the past six years.