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.
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.
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.
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.
But governments and tech firms face an uphill battle: as the virus spreads, unfounded rumours are proliferating across multiple platforms.
"Blacks don't get coronavirus," said one erroneous tweet seen by Reuters, which was posted by a user in Kenya with nearly 700,000 followers.
"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.
Some governments are now resorting to punitive measures.
In Kenya, at least two men, including a popular blogger, have been arrested for publishing false information about the virus on Twitter, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison or a fine of 5 million Kenyan shillings (US$48,000). Neither has been charged.
South Africa introduced a law in March that makes sharing malicious falsehoods about the virus punishable by up to six months in jail.
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.
False claims that garlic, beetroot and lemons are an effective alternative to anti-retroviral drugs - endorsed by a former South African health minister - contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 2000s, according to Harvard University researchers.
And bogus rumours that foreign aid workers were bringing Ebola into communities hampered the response to two major outbreaks in Africa in the past six years.
'FEAR AND IGNORANCE'
As coronavirus cases increase in Africa, similar false rumours are surfacing again, amplified by social media.
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.
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa made clear his concern when he declared a national disaster in March.
"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 Praekelt.org, 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.
The WHO noticed the service and partnered with Praekelt.org to launch its own version on March 20. It receives about 100,000 enquiries per hour, according to the organization's founder, Gustav Praekelt.
Facebook, along with social media competitors including Twitter and YouTube, has barred users from posting harmful information about COVID-19 on its platforms.
The company is working with third-party fact-checkers in 15 sub-Saharan African countries to identify and remove such posts from Facebook, said its regional spokeswoman, Kezia Anim-Addo. WhatsApp is piloting a similar effort in Nigeria, among other countries.
But the volume of posts on COVID-19 is too high to catch every problematic claim, said Siphesihle Hlela, Africa strategic director at global media intelligence company Meltwater.
Many rumours begin life on one platform, only to be copied and shared on others.
Post are often written in pidgin English or lesser-known African languages, so might not be picked up by software that directs posts to fact-checkers, said Adebola Williams, founder and chief executive of Nigerian media consultancy Red.
Messages on WhatsApp are encrypted, so will only be checked if a user reports them.
Last year Facebook limited the number of times a WhatsApp message can be forwarded to five, in an attempt to curb the spread of rumours.
But misleading information still gets through.
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."
(Additional reporting by Ayenat Mersie in Nairobi, Tim Cocks in Johannesburg, Paul Carsten and Abraham Achirga in Abuja, Nneka Chile and Seun Sanni in Lagos; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Giles Elgood)