Liberia: How Fake News, Rumor, Misinformation Undercut Public Health Interventions During Outbreak

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Monrovia – Curbing the spread of any virus outbreak requires meticulous and robust public health interventions as well as effective risk communication strategies. So, when fake rumors and news are penetrating the public sphere, the virus itself does not seem to be the only problem to solve.

The confirmation of the first COVID-19 case in Liberia on March 16 sparked a lot of rumors, leaving social media buzzing with thousands of posts and comments — some from media sources others based on people’s perceptions.

And these perceptions, which come from non-scientists or health experts, are most likely based on unconfirmed studies, rumor, misinformation and misconceptions.

This situation resembles what unfolded during the Ebola epidemic back in 2015, when denials, conspiracy theories and fake rumors about the viral haemorrhagic fever significantly disrupted public health interventions.

Months later, severe damage was already done – over a thousand people had died before the country would realize that effective communication was vital to rolling back the epidemic.

Fake News, Misinformation Swirling

Now, as Covid-19 spreads its tentacles across the world including in Liberia, experienced health journalists and public health experts are again warning that spreading rumors during outbreaks doesn’t only impede health interventions; it also spreads fear and panic in the population.

Already, there have been varieties of fake news and rumor spreading in Liberia. Recently, rumor spread that the government was preparing to spray the air as a means of eradicating COVID-19. Others also rumored that the “spraying” was intended to infect a significant amount of the population with the Coronavirus.

Before the “spraying” rumor gained traction, several social media users shared a fake certificate purportedly signed by the United Nations’ Secretary General to the first confirmed patient of COVID-19 in the country, declaring him cured from the virus.

The fake certificate, the government later said, was part of a scheme to convince the public that there was no case in the country. It followed pockets of discussions on the radio, social media and in communities, speculating that there was no case of the virus in the country and that the government was only trying to lure some of the money dedicated to stopping the virus and provided by the World Bank and other international organizations.

Dr. MosoKa Fallah, Director of NPHIL, appeared wary of the spread of fake news and misinformation when he gave a Facebook live update of the country’s three confirmed cases. 

He then expressed a “passionate appeal” to Liberians while cautioning that “in the midst of this very serious outbreak, people are bent on spreading misinformation and disinformation”.

“This is so dangerous to the country,” the head of Liberia’s public health institute warned of the rumor that had to do with the spraying the country.

“How can you do this to your country? In the midst of this thing when we face a global threat… you’re being too unfair to the country.” 

But Joyce Kilikpo, a Liberian public health practitioner, says rumors are easily believed by many Liberians because they lack trust in the government.

This is a situation that exacerbates during disease and virus outbreaks, she added, while suggesting that “clear and concise information” can be the antidote to misinformation and mistrust during health emergencies.

“We need to make sure during public health crises our trusted institutions, clinicians, churches, mosques, community organizations, local NGOs, and the media are better educated and informed on what’s ongoing,” said the head of a local NGO – Public Health Initiative Liberia.

Like Dr. Fallah, Ms. Kilikpo thinks the growing rate of misinformation and rumors is threatening the response and preparedness efforts put in place to curb the further spread of the virus.

She suggests that frequent updates about the outbreak by health authorities would likely limit the spread of misinformation. 

“Telling the population exactly what you are doing and what you are not doing helps to regain their trust and allow the people to adhere to messages for behavior change during public health emergencies.”

Meanwhile, there have been ostensibly swift responses in refuting misinformation by government spokespersons but the threat of fake news and rumor are still hovering.

Disrupts Interventions

Katharina Thomas, a British-American global health journalist, says people often “cling on to rumors because they [rumor] give them a sense that there is a simple solution to a health problem”.

Thomas, who has reported on public health issues in Sub-Saharan Africa for several international news organizations including the Independent and New York Times, says fake rumor derail public health interventions. 

“For example, they [people who believe these rumors] don’t go for testing and screening. This would mean that the size of the problem can’t be known, which affects planning for supplies and other emergency measures,” said Thomas, who also covered the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

“If many people act on such rumors, the authorities cannot plan or act to save lives. Of course, it can also be harmful or even fatal for the individual.”

While disseminating fake news and rumors impedes health interventions, it also helps spread fear and panic in the population, which cause suspected or confirmed patients to deny their health statuses.

Like in the case of the Ebola outbreak, when several patients fled isolation because they did wrongly believe a particular conspiracy theory about the EVD. 

Knowing Facts From Fiction

Another expert suggests that it is also important for Liberians to learn the “difference between rumors and accurate information” during outbreak.

“Every time you hear or read a piece of information about coronavirus, ask where does it [the information] come from? Does it come from a public health expert, who has experience in managing outbreaks? Does it come from NPHIL [the National Public Health Institute of Liberia] or a medical doctor or an epidemiologist? If so, then it is likely to be accurate,” said Ida Jooste, Global Health Journalism advisor for American international NGO, Internews.

“If you see your friends and neighbors spreading rumors that you believe are inaccurate, talk to them about the facts. People spread rumors because it helps them make sense of difficult times; there is no need to get angry at them, but you can definitely help to calmly explain to them the scientific facts instead.”

What Role Can the Media Play?

Meanwhile, expert health journalists have warned reporters against “repeating false information”, while calling on them to rather gather rumor, make assessment of them in order to determine where “the information gaps are, and then provide the accurate, credibly sourced information” to the public.

Jooste, who trained dozens of Liberian journalists in health and science reporting during the Ebola outbreak, advises  journalists, who have access to the internet, to frequently check international websites like the US’ Center for Disease Control and the WHO to verify information about the virus.

The Liberian media was recognized for its starring role in it’s effort to roll back the Ebola outbreak when it helped empowered communities with accurate information.

And Jooste says journalists still have “a big role to play during this pandemic” and they should be “careful not to sensationalize coronavirus” but “share the facts with their audiences and empower them with knowledge”.

“The media should also make sure that every source they interview has true expertise on the subject, so they don’t accidentally risk spreading misinformation,” said the experienced South African journalist.

“As during the Ebola time, there is a lot about this virus that scientists still don’t know, so it’s also important to make it clear when a source is sharing an opinion versus a fact.”

Added Thomas: “There is so much information out there about this new virus and about the pandemic, yet people still have so many questions. This is to be expected when something with so much impact is so new.”

She also cautioned journalists to “listen deeply and carefully to the questions people are asking” about the virus and then seek “credible and trusted sources who can answer the questions”.

“The media may also need to translate the science into clear and easily understood language. The media can also find well-informed influencers to amplify the messages, which will help curb the spread of the virus,” she added.

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