A piece of research by the UN Global Pulse has shown that, between February and November 2020, news and reports about the Coronavirus pandemic “has been shared or viewed more than 270 billion times online”. However, more stunningly, this is not a mere statistic for the entire world, but it covered only countries included in the WHO African Region (so, it is around 450 online news per African internet-user). This titanic amount of data was defined in a PAHO (Pan American Health Organisation) paper as a “massive infodemic”, in other words “an overabundance of information associated with a specific topic – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”. Regrettably, the share of misleading or false information is generating a dangerous online environment, with people revealing undocumented drugs for Covid-19 or divulging conspiracies or other machinations.
Unfortunately, examples of problems created by fake news in Africa are rampant. In Nigeria, the conspiracy theory that the current pandemic is a governmental plot is widely diffuse. Indeed, it will not be uncommon to find people in the streets yelling that “Corona it’s not real and I’ve never seen someone with Coronavirus in Nigeria”, “They are using it to defraud the masses” or “Corona is abroad not in Africa”. As BBC reports, inaccurate claims, such as the African people usage as lab-rat for Covid vaccines or the protection given by Africa’s hot climate, have amplified the lack of confidence. Afterwards, when the epidemic started to reap victims, charlatan and fake doctors opened their new businesses by selling false Covid cures. These enterprises caused, according to some reports, the death of about 100,000 people in Africa each year.
To sum up, much news is false, but its effects are mostly concrete. How to tackle this Covid-related infodemic? To answer it, the WHO decided to implement the first alliance of its kind: the AIRA (Africa Infodemic Response Alliance). AIRA is an alliance among international and regional organisations, fact-checking groups, and regional and international experts in different areas, such as epidemiology, data analysis, digital health, in order to face misinformation. In particular, this coalition regroups international organisations such as the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the WHO AFRO, UNICEF, UNESCO, the UN Global Pulse, and the IFCR, and other private participating or supporting entities. Nowadays, its project is active both at the regional level in Sub-Saharan Africa, Horn of Africa, and West Africa, as well as at the country-level in six African states.
Between June and July 2020, the WHO held a scientific conference about “infodemiology” (defined as the science of managing infodemics). The results of that summit will build up the bases of AIRA’s strategy. According to AIRA’s records, its plan to handle Covid-related fake news could be summarised with the Misinformation Management Framework. This theorisation creates the background from which the war against fake news begins, and it is composed of four pillars. Firstly, it aims to identify every information gaps or misinformation which is currently spreading both online and offline. Secondly, it seeks to simplify technical knowledge in order to create plainer methods capable of solving the problem. Thirdly, it intends to amplify correct information by sharing them through mainstream and institutional channel. Finally, it plans to quantify the impact of AIRA interventions in order to ameliorate or enrich future strategies.
To implement the previous targets, according to AIRA’s data, its policy must concentrate on five pivotal areas. First of all, AIRA intends to blend and complement the various energies and efforts in fake news removal, therefore, enhancing better coordination between regional and country actors. Then, the partnership aims to develop prolific and proactive conditions for leading-edge infodemiology research in order to continuously ameliorate the effectiveness of responses against false information. Besides, the Alliance plans to carry a lobbying and advocacy policy inside governments and other leading institutions in order to stimulate countries to include the infomedic struggle in their list of priorities. Furthermore, to assist states which are implementing counteractions, the coalition offers its aid, support, and expertise to better handle the spreading infodemic. Lastly, AIRA promotes the creation of Viral Facts, which is not only the affiliated public face of the Alliance but is also responsible for producing fact-based health information, debunking fake news and claims, and providing and delivering misinformation literacy. Likewise, the Alliance supports and encourages both data holders and journalists to communicate lifesaving information throughout different media outlets and to empower people to make informed choices.
The effects of this first-time alliance will only be seen in the future because AIRA is brand-new, and it was firstly announced in December 2020. Despite that, it might be vital for the future of Africa. Indeed, as Volkan Bozkir (President of the UN General Assembly) said, “aside from the virus and its impacts, another adversary has been plaguing our response: misinformation and disinformation. […] We have seen the dangers of misinformation before, including in the response to a disease [measle]. […] Misinformation has taken us backwards”. AIRA will have to demonstrate its effectiveness and readiness in facing the false-information pandemic which is currently circulating. Furthermore, the Alliance will also have to prove its skills and capabilities. Indeed, the Alliance shall convince regional governments about the seriousness and extent of infodemics because, without governmental support, it may be more demanding to implement these sorts of policies. Besides, infodemics have deteriorated the lack of trust in institutions, especially traditional ones, and have jeopardised the long-term health of many global societies. Hence, new institutions like AIRA might be crucial in regaining lost consensus and recovering people’s confidence.
But the question remains: is AIRA going to achieve such ambitious goals? Only time will tell.
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