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COVID-19: Fake News , Misinformation Capable of Causing Depression, Death, Experts Warn At LASU Lecture

While the deadly coronavirus continues to spread fast around the world, it has been established that fake news, misinformation and disinformation about the disease are spreading even faster, and experts have warned Nigerians to be careful of the kind and source of information they consume to avoid being a victim of a new kind of pandemic called ‘infodemic’.

They also advised media users to be techno-literate and news-wise.

According to the experts- Prof. Rotimi Olatunji, Dean, Lagos State University School of Communication; Nelly Kalu, Broadcast Journalist and Media Consultant; Mayowa Tijani, Development Journalist and Fact-Checker, Agence France-Presse (AFP); Mojeed Alabi, Deputy Head Investigations, Premium Times; and Dr. Tunde Akanni, Department of Journalism, Lagos State University- who delivered papers at the 3rd Lagos State University Virtual Public Lecture, held on Tuesday, 12th May, 2020, poor judgement, loss of income, panic, depression and death are some of the consequences of infodemic and fake news in the era of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Lecture, themed “Handling Information Deluge in the Era of Covid-19 Pandemic” was Moderated by the Vice Chancellor, Professor Olanrewaju Adigun Fagbohun.

Misinformation is a false or inaccurate information or content that is unintentionally spread, disinformation is false or misleading information that is spread deliberately to deceive the reader while infodemic has been described as information overload, a situation where there is too much information for individuals to handle.

“In Nigeria, the tsunami of misinformation and disinformation has accompanied the coronavirus spread, provoking fear and exploiting vulnerabilities. Some Nigerians simply refuse to believe the disease’s existence.

“The sheer volume of information flying around has led to another kind of pandemic called infodemic. According to WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “we are not fighting an epidemic, we are fighting an infodemic,”‘ said the first speaker, Professor Rotimi Olatunji.

The Professor of Public Relations and Advertising called for vigilance on the part of media users to avoid falling victim of infodemic: “As individuals, you must filter information as you receive them, rely on credible and authoritative sources for your information, and don’t share a message that you are not sure of it’s source. Government on it’s part must use media professional to propagate information, release accurate and timely information, use positive psychological and sociological appeals and incorporate the use of indigenous, traditional and new media to share information, amongst others.”

He concluded by recommending edutainment as a means to educate and create awareness on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Media Consultant, Nelly Kalu, in her lecture titled “Impact of Misinformation on the Containment of Covid-19” warned that misinformation on the virus is capable of causing panic, loss of income and death amongst citizens.

She also warned that such information could come in glittering wraps: “In many cases, the fake information we see are embedded in true information, and are sometimes shared by credible individuals. They are shared through digital sources like WhatsApp chats, blog news, links amongst others.

“There have been quite a number of misinformation on major health crisis such as linking the use of salt solution to cure Ebola and the use of chloroquine, alcohol and hot water to cure Covid-19, leading to various panic reactions among Nigerians. Sometimes, these substances are consumed in excess leading to fatalities.

There are even conspiracy theories about 5G, chemical and biological weapons and the virus.”

She stated further that “with the pandemic, we are seeing distorted data flying everywhere, politicizing of the issue and disaccreditation of journalist, all of which pose grave consequences. Misinformation makes us a danger to ourselves- the exact thing we are afraid of.”

On how to identify fake news, she said “misinformation thrives on bias and mistrust; it thrives on sentiments. To not fall victim, when you received an information, pause and ask yourself: does it propose a magical solution, is it one-sided, is it independent of the truth, does it have a credible sources? These should reveal it’s authenticity”

Fact-checking can no longer be business for fact-checkers alone, but for everyone who consumes news. That was the position of Mayowa Tijani, a Development Journalist and Fact-Checker with AFP who spoke on “Disinformation and the Role of Fact-Checking During Covid-19”.

He revealed that WhatsApp, which is the most popular instant messaging App in Africa, today, has over 2 billion users with 65 billion messages being shared on the platform daily making it a fertile ground for fake news.

He proposed the “WhatsApp solution”, to fake news that are often posted and forwarded on the WhatsApp messaging platform thus: ” beware of forwarded as received, reverse image search through labnol.org/reverse/, beware of out-of-context videos, vet that voice note and pause before sharing.”

For the Deputy Head, Investigations, Premium Times, Mojeed Alabi, accurate reportage of news and stories require that journalists are fully involved in efforts against the pandemic.

Speaking on the topic “Covid-19: The Press as a Frontline”, the multiple award winning journalist warned that pressmen must be given every access and support required to aid the proliferation of accurate information on the pandemic.

“Imagine what could have happened with the mysterious deaths in Kano and Jigawa or the protest in Gombe, without media coverage and reportage? If you would agree with me that thousands could have died in Kano without media interventions, then the media is important.

“For near-accurate reportage, responsible journalism requires
active participation of journalists in whatever is to be reported, ” he said, adding that “a journalist is therefore expected to independently provide the tools he needs, transport himslef to the scene of activity, be responsible for his own welfare and ensure his own safety and security, amongst others.”

The consensus among the experts on the need for media users to be news and information wise was further underscored by Dr. Tunde Akanni of the Department of Journalism, Lagos State University School of Communication and member, Advisory Board, Dudawa, who spoke on “Covid-19 in the Age of Ultimate Public Sphere.”

Dr. Akanni argued that being literate in today’s world is not enough, as many educated people, are victims of fake news. “Being news-wise is also, in fact, a requirement to endure and survive era of information deluge brought by era of world wide web and myriad of mobile applications all playing host to the public sphere.”

He argued further that ” the urge to know more and ahead of colleagues and neighbours undermine thorough scrutiny. Media literacy education is of utmost relevance now, hardly subsists, yet needed now more than ever.”

He blamed poor relationship between the citizens and the government for the surge in misinformation while advocating media literacy among citizens: “Citizens distrust of the government arising from insincerity to outright manipulation is a key factor. Media literacy education is indispensable. LASU and other Universities with Communication Studies must start from within. Government public information system and language use must always smack professional perfection.”

The Lecture had in attendance more than 240 participants, one of whom was the General Manager, Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency(LASEPA), Dr. Dolapo Fasawe.

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