Zimbabwe: Fake News - Pandemic Within Pandemic

26 March 2020

Today, humanity as it is known is at threat. No one is safe, even the world's biggest names have tested positive for Covid-19.

From Prince Charles of Britain, Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal coach, and Manu Dibangu -- who unfortunately succumbed to the disease -- it is proving to be indiscriminate.

The new virus knows no class, creed nor race. It is literally pervasive.

This is why even global cosmopolitan cities like London and New York are in lockdown, in an effort to contain it.

Harare appears to be headed towards the same route, should the current situation change for the worst.

Countries like Zimbabwe are effecting a partial lockdown as they continue to observe the situation.

However, there is one element which has been uniform across the world -- fake news.

Although it is not part of the physical symptoms, misinformation and fake news have been threatening people's safety in equal measure.

Fake news is content created with intent to mislead its readers in search of profit or out of sheer malice.

Some countries like South Africa have since put in measures to reduce fake news.

Last week in South Africa, regulations under the Disaster Management Act 2002 were published in the Government Gazette. Under Section 11(5) of the regulations, it becomes an offence to publish a statement through any medium with the intention to deceive about Covid-19, anyone's Covid-19 infection status or government measures to address the pandemic.

The penalty is a fine or imprisonment for six months, or both.

The move, which may appear draconian, has the potential to save lives.

During this Covid-19 scare, some have been diagnosed through social media, others killed before their time.

Even political players from across the region are not spared.

This week, Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who is in self-isolation after travelling to Namibia, saw a fake press statement being circulated bearing his name.

Crafted with malice, the press release which was on a letterhead normally used by the Botswana government, claimed that Masisi had tested positive for Covid-19.

A quick perusal shows that the piece of "news" which has since gone viral is a work fiction, no single Botswana publication has run the story, nor has the government communicated through their usual communication channels.

In Zimbabwe, top officials have met the same fate.

"Mthuli Ncube and George Charamba hospitalised, reliable source," read the message which circulated on WhatsApp over the past few days.

It suggested that Finance and Economic Development Minister Professor Mthuli Ncube and Deputy Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet (Presidential Communications) Mr George Charamba were being isolated on suspicion of having been exposed to the coronavirus, allegations they have since both refuted.

Writing on his Twitter account @Jamwanda2, yesterday, Mr Charamba assured the nation that the circulating rumour is not true.

"Good afternoon Zimbabweans including my avid mongers of rumours! How are you doing? Let's keep up the fight against Coronavirus! And of course against distracting rumours and hysteria. Love and affection," wrote Charamba.

Political players are usually at the receiving end of the fake news stick because they are popular and their names work for an approach called clickbait in online content creation.

In a research paper titled "Clickbait as a strategy of viral journalism: Conceptualisation and method", Spanish media scholars Angela Bazaco, Marta Redondo Garcia and Pilar Sanchez-Garcia say click-bait is characterised by incomplete information, absence of the most relevant data, leaves unanswered questions and bears deliberate ambiguity.

In above cases there is an intentional opacity which betrays the content created as clickbait, this has been the mainstay of dubious online websites who are cashing in on the general curiosity surrounding Covid-19.

WhatsApp groups have been hotbeds for misinformation.

A lot of content with the disclaimer "forwarded as received," trades hand as people create a web of poisoned intel.

There has not been a cure yet for Covid-19 but the WhatsApp mill has been relentless in suggesting concoctions which the gullible have been sharing without authenticating.

Some of the messages bear potential of causing health complications or even fatalities such as the one below;

"The cure for the C19 virus or the way to eliminate it was achieved. The recipe is simple:

1. Lemon

2. Bicarbonate

Mix and drink as hot tea every afternoon, the action of the lemon with hotter baking soda immediately kills the virus completely eliminates it from the body."

Such messages are dangerous as they have the potential to cause harm to those who find themselves consuming them.

Supermarkets in Harare have been struggling to maintain garlic stocks after another message circulating suggested a garlic and ginger mixture is the silver bullet for Covid-19.

Besides creating panic, which is the first effect of misleading information, fake news reverses the gains made in public education.

Instead of self-isolating when they feel under the weather, people are now chewing cloves of garlic and going about their business.

According to all health advice from the Ministry of Health and Child Care as well as World Health Organisation (WHO) people are supposed to self-isolate when they feel unwell but the dubious remedies shared over social networks are going to make that message hard to stick.

In the midst of the madness, there are those dedicating time to debunk the fake news.

There is a platform called Zimfact which has been collating fake news on Covid-19 and seeking to debunk false claims.

Mainstream media has been playing its part too in ensuring there is reliable information, even in this age of madness.

When the virus is finally contained there may be need to take stock on how much fake news made the fight against Covid-19 harder than it already was.

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