African governments, tech giants team up to fight coronavirus lies

File: A WhatsApp spokesman said the new limit was in place indefinitely.

File: A WhatsApp spokesman said the new limit was in place indefinitely.

AFP/Lionel Bonaventure

ABUJA - 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 healthcare systems.

READ: Fake cures, risky rumours: Virus misinformation hits home

South Africa, which has more infections than any other African country, with more than 1,300 confirmed cases, has launched an information service about the coronavirus on WhatsApp.

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 on social media in sending out the right message," said Chikwe Ihekweazu, who heads the NCDC.

READ: One arrested for coronavirus fake news: Cele

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

Public health officials worry such posts will drive up the number of infections -- currently around 6,000, according to a Reuters tally -- on a continent beset by overburdened health facilities. Many know from painful experience how shared misinformation can fuel a deadly epidemic.

- South Africa - 

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

President Cyril Ramaphosa made clear his concern when he declared a national disaster in March.

READ: Coronavirus In SA: Spreading fake news could land you in jail

"Perhaps the greatest dangers to our country at this time are fear and ignorance," he said. "We should stop spreading fake and unverified news and creating further apprehension and alarm."

The country's health department developed its WhatsApp service with South Africa-based non-profit, using machine learning technology. Users who send the word "hi" to a WhatsApp number can get questions answered on topics including myths, symptoms and treatments.

- Nigeria -

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 around the world.

READ: Nigerians brace for lockdown as Africa tries to halt virus

"If you think you have it ... you must learn to unblock your airway by boiling lemon/ginger & inhaling," advised another bogus tweet, posted by a user in Nigeria with more than 119,000 followers.

In Lagos, artist Aderemi Adegbite shook his head at a false rumour on WhatsApp that the government intended to spray coronavirus-fighting chemicals from a plane.

"These messages are actually a big problem, even though they look or sound funny," he said. "We are in a serious situation." 

- Kenya -

In Kenya, at least two men, including a popular blogger, have been arrested for publishing false information about the virus on Twitter.

READ: Kenya president sorry for coronavirus cop violence

The offense is punishable by up to 10 years in prison or a fine of 5 million Kenyan shillings ($48,000). Neither has been charged.

- Ethiopia -

Shoppers in Addis Ababa said prices of garlic and lemon had tripled within days of Ethiopia confirming its first case.

"These are wanted for medicinal purposes," said ginger seller Abebe Tene. "I am protecting myself by inserting garlic in one side of my nose and ginger in the other."

Seemingly cheap ways to beat a pandemic that has killed more than 46,900 people worldwide have broad appeal on a continent where soap and clean water for hand washing are out of reach for many.