A new network in Africa aims to combat the “infodemic” of misinformation online surrounding COVID-19 and other health emergencies on the continent, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Thursday.
The Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA), brings together 13 international and regional organizations, together with fact-checking groups which have expertise in data and behavioural science, epidemiology, research, digital health and communications.
The @WHO has launched the 🌍Africa Infodemic Response Alliance. #AIRA brings together 13 international & regional organizations & fact-checking groups to detect, disrupt & counter damaging misinformation on public health issues in Africa.https://t.co/Y6SlBUIsRc— WHO African Region (@WHOAFRO) December 3, 2020
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said the Alliance has the unique reach, knowledge and skills to help halt the impact of dangerous misinformation.
“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”, she said.
Detect, disrupt, debunk
AIRA is the first initiative of its kind, working to detect, disrupt and counter damaging misinformation on public health issues in Africa.
The agency cited statistics from UN Global Pulse, the UN Secretary-General’s initiative on big data and artificial intelligence.
Between February and November of this year, information about the virus has been shared and viewed over 270 billion times online, and mentioned nearly 40 million times on Twitter and web-based news sites, in the 47 countries of the WHO African Region.
Although a large proportion of this information is inaccurate and misleading, people continue to share content on social media, whether intentionally or unknowingly, which include conspiracies around unproven treatments, false cures and anti-vaccine messages
While it is difficult to determine exactly how much misinformation is being circulated, WHO said fact-checking organizations in Africa report that they have debunked more than 1,000 misleading reports since the start of the pandemic.
Collaboration and support
Among other efforts, AIRA will work collaboratively to counter false information around COVID-19 vaccines, in addition to complementing public health awareness raising and community engagement efforts, by creating demand for vaccines in the region.
The Alliance will also support journalists and media outlets to effectively share lifesaving information based on scientific evidence and debunk disinformation on health issues. African countries will also receive assistance in developing tailored infodemic management strategies, including analysing trends and behaviours.
AIRA members include the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, UN Global Pulse, and the UN Verified initiative: the Organization’s own campaign against pandemic misinformation globally.
Misinformation: An old enemy
Although COVID-19 represents a new challenge to the global community, the President of the UN General Assembly recalled that the world has seen the dangers of misinformation before, including in response to disease.
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“The coverage of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine has decreased in some places, due to misinformation about the vaccine. Measles has become resurgent. Misinformation has taken us backwards”, President Volkan Bozkir said on Wednesday during an Assembly meeting on sharing best practices for the infodemic.
He emphasized that trust in institutions is crucial, as “people are more likely to turn to less credible alternative sources of information when they do not trust traditional sources.”
Mr. Bozkir welcomed steps taken by countries and international organizations to combat the infodemic, as well as UN efforts to counter “the scourge of misinformation, stigmatization and harmful health advice and strengthen trust in science.”