Like the rest of the world, the spread of covid-19 in Africa is accompanied by the spread of misinformation about the virus.
To help the continent better manage the pandemic and the infodemic, fact-checking project Viral Facts Africa launched by the Africa Infomedic Response Alliance (AIRA) brings together health bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC) and UNICEF.
In collaboration with UK news lab Fathm, they produce accessible social content that aims to fight misinformation and fill information gaps. The challenge of creating fact-based social content is that facts are often boring and hard to understand, while misinformation travels faster because it is simple and highly shareable.
"It's like bringing a knife to a gunfight," says Tom Trewinnard, co-founder of Fathm. "We are trying to use visual, simple and clear messages that are accessible to the public.
"Where misinformation taps into anger and fear, there isn’t really a corresponding emotion to tap into with the truth."
📢 Keep masking 😷! Masks protect you from COVID-19. pic.twitter.com/yehzENhogo— ViralFacts (@viralfacts) February 10, 2021
The team uses social staples - emojis, animation and sometimes humour when it is appropriate, to communicate medical information. The problem is not the lack of knowledge: the WHO provides ample science-based advice but it struggles to get the message across to the public. Fact-checkers can verify a piece of information but they do not have enough reach to make it go viral. So Fathm uses short text and graphics to help health organisations communicate with the population.
Users can send their questions and concerns to the Viral Facts Africa team who then either respond directly with verified information or point them towards stories that have already been fact-checked.
Questions tend to be very practical - not many are concerned about Bill Gates microchipping the Earth's population. People commonly ponder how alcohol affects vaccine's efficiency or worry about new virus variants.
The aim is to respond to these concerns as quickly and plainly as possible to prevent misinformation from filling the knowledge gap and then going viral.
The project also works with local fact-checkers on specific issues like rumours of herbal remedies believed to cure covid. If such story is localised, they will then collaborate with the community to produce a piece of content that uses the right tone, language, or phrases to resonate with that audience.
The creators also target what they call the super-spreader network made of the members of the public who feel empowered to spread verified information.
"We are trying to be proactive and generate visually engaging fact-checked videos within minutes so they can be widely shared before the misinformation spreads faster," says Fergus Bell, another co-founder of Fathm, adding that his team also try to understand what people may be looking at next and have that content at the ready.
However, just like anywhere else in the world, Africa too sees the rise of the antiscience movement and mistrust toward modern medicine.
Trewinnard said that the company is currently doing research to better understand the impact of Viral Facts Africa. Although the initiative has reached more than 20m people since its launch in February 2021, they do not know whether it helps people be better informed or make better decisions.
"We want to investigate these questions," he says, "and use the data to inform our future strategy." The first results are expected this month.
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