By Ernest Mwanzi
Dictionary.com defines Fake News as false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared or distributed for the purpose of generating revenue, or promoting or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc. However, some writers have argued that the term False Information is more appropriate as “Fake News” is most appealing and used in the political arena.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, various reports have shown that fake news has taken root all across the world. For instance, US President, Donald Trump, has been quoted as saying that ingesting disinfectants could potentially be used to treat coronavirus. Locally, there was information widely circulating saying that the coronavirus could not survive the tropical climate, reducing our risk of exposure to it.
The Ministry of Health in Kenya (MOH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been on the forefront in fighting fake news by providing platforms which people can verify any information about COVID-19. The Ministry of Health, for instance, has been active on Twitter, providing frequent updates and information on the coronavirus, while the World Health Organization has an automated WhatsApp line through which people can get information on the virus instantly and at any time. Social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have also taken the lead in fighting this pandemic by having anchor posts on their respective platforms with verified information related to the virus.
For these reasons USIU-Africa through the Social Media Lab realized the need to host a webinar to tackle the emergent issue on “Social media Fake News and Mental Health in the Age of COVID-19”. The webinar which was held on Thursday, June 4, 2020, brought speakers from both the Academia and industry experts to discuss Fake News and their effects on mental health
Prof. Melissa Tully, Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Iowa noted that the pandemic presented a set of unique communication challenges due to the level of uncertainties revolving around health issues and thus making it easy to spread fake news.
She reiterated the dangers of spreading fake news, adding that governments should invest on practical research that can help in coming up with practical solutions to empower people not to share misinformation and how to find quality information.
“There are many ways of ignoring online information that can’t be authenticated in circulating, but we all need to take responsibility and politely advise any users, especially those on closed sites such as WhatsApp, against spreading fake news without substantiated facts. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to ensure that we use our time constructively by doing things that take our thumbs away from our smartphones, “she said.
Dr Stephen Ndegwa, a clinical psychologist noted that fake news was like adding salt to injury, as it multiplied the anxiety that came with COVID-19. “As social beings, when we are put in isolation and are unable to verify any information received, it causes stress, thereby affecting our mental health even further, ” he said. Mr Philip Ogolla, Founder Digital Humanitarian and New Media Consultant indicated that our Health workers are strained and battling fatigue and that misinformation on COVID-19 demotivates them further.
“Fake News in the country is spread by individuals who want to be first to break news, with some of them going to the extent of creating screenshots and fake quotes. I know some families affected by coronavirus who no longer go online or visit social media sites, because of the misinformation around the pandemic,” he noted.
He also underlined the need of using all digital platforms to capture testimonies that can educate and create awareness of the pandemic and to all who deliberately think they won’t become victims – adding that for most Kenyans, this pandemic only becomes a reality once it hits closer home. Philip urged all to use the available credible resources, such as the WHO website, which has real-time statistics and facts of the ongoing pandemic.
According to the UNESCO Handbook for Journalism Education and Training; Fake News is an old story, fueled by new technology; mobilizing and manipulating information was a feature of history long before modern journalism established standards which define news as a genre based on particular rules of integrity. An early record dates back to ancient Rome when Antony met Cleopatra and his political enemy Octavian launched a smear campaign against him with “short, sharp slogans written upon coins in the style of archaic Tweets. “The perpetrator became the first Roman Emperor and “fake news had allowed Octavian to hack the republican system once and for all”.