By HENRY OWINO
The Director of the newly established Africa Science Media Center (AfriSMC), Daniel Otunge, welcomed launch of the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance as a “very timely move and a step in the right direction as it would help the continent to deal with an avalanche of fake news”.
The World Health Organization (WHO) launched the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA) to coordinate actions and pool resources in combating misinformation around COVID-19 pandemic and other health emergencies in Africa.
Speaking at the offices of AfriSMC in Nairobi, Otunge called on the Alliances members to consider working very closely with key information sources and public opinion shapers, such as the major legacy media and social media service providers on the continent.
“The AfriSMC (www.afrismc.org), whose mission and objects are similar to those of the alliance”, Otunge said, is also keen to join and work closely with the alliance members in combating misinformation by putting into practice key recommendations on infodemic management that were developed by over 1300 experts from across disciplines in early 2020 under the auspices of WHO’s global Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN).
Digital platforms have been inundated with COVID-19-related information since the pandemic began in late 2019. Information about the virus has been shared and viewed over 270 billion times online and mentioned almost 40 million times on Twitter and web-based news sites in the 47 countries of the WHO African Region between February and November 2020, according to UN Global Pulse, the United Nations’ Secretary-General’s initiative on big data and artificial intelligence.
A large proportion of this information is inaccurate and misleading and continues to be shared by social media users intentionally or unknowingly every day. The COVID-19 infodemic is amplified online through social media but health misinformation is also circulating offline.
Measuring precisely how much of what is circulating as misinformation is difficult, but fact-checking organizations in Africa say they have debunked more than 1000 of such misleading reports since the onset of the pandemic. Some of the widely shared misinformation include conspiracies around unproven treatments, false cures and anti-vaccine messages.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti WHO Regional Director for Africa said: “In health emergencies, misinformation can kill and ensure diseases continue to spread. People need proven, science-based facts to make informed decisions about their health and wellbeing, and a glut of information – an infodemic – with misinformation in the mix makes it hard to know what is right and real. This crucial new alliance brings unique reach, knowledge and skills to help stop the impact of dangerous misinformation.”
Among others, the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance will work collaboratively to counter false information around COVID-19 vaccines and complement on the ground public health awareness raising and community engagement efforts by creating demand for vaccines in the region.
The network is the first initiative of its kind and it brings together 13 international and regional organizations and fact-checking groups with expertise in data and behavioural science, epidemiology, research, digital health, and communications to detect, disrupt and counter damaging misinformation on public health issues in Africa.
The Alliance will encourage proactive disclosure by data holders and support journalists and media outlets to effectively share lifesaving information based on scientific evidence and debunk disinformation on health issues.
It also aims to support individual African countries in developing tailored infodemic management strategies, including analysing trends and behaviours, recruiting specialists and refining systematic engagement strategies rooted in research and analytics.
The Alliance members are Africa CDC, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the United Nations Verified initiative, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and United Nations Global Pulse. Participating and supporting bodies include Africa Check, Agence France-Presse Fact Check, PesaCheck, Dubawa and Meedan.
As the Director of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), Dr John Nkengasong, rightly said: “Africa can only beat the COVID-19 pandemic and other disease outbreaks by relying on trusted information that is based on insights scientists bring to the conversation. To fight misinformation and mischaracterization, public health experts must work with the community and media consistently and continuously. This is the value that the AIRA partnership brings to the collective of responses in the continent.”