Lessons Learned From Fact-Checking COVID-19 Misinformation

By the time the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, misinformation about origins of the virus, its mode of transmission and how to treat or prevent it were already going viral globally. Many people did not know what information to believe, and some ended up losing their lives after trying unproven remedies to ward off the virus. We were in the midst of an infodemic that has evolved and grown as vaccines have been approved and rolled out.

To fill this vacuum, Viral Facts Africa has been working with Africa’s fact-checkers and the WHO Regional Office for Africa and members of the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance to provide accurate health information since the beginning of this year. We have been producing explainers on questions sent to us, debunking false claims going viral on digital platforms, and creating engaging content to help people spot health misinformation.

It has been an incredible six months for me as social content editor at Viral Facts Africa, and these are the three key lessons I have learnt so far:

  1. Collaboration is Key

Misinformation knows no bounds. We’ve seen unproven herbal remedies originally flagged in Asia pop up in African countries several months later. And just a couple of weeks ago, a false claim attributed to a scientist began spreading in both Anglophone and Francophone countries. We debunked this claim with Dubawa, a fact-checking organization with a presence in four countries in Africa.

Collaborating with regional partners who are part of the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance has made it easier to identify and prioritise claims that need to be addressed, and disseminate factual information to a wider audience. This collaboration has seen our content surpass 100 million views as of June 2021.

  1. Be pre-emptive

Ongoing social listening has helped us identify information gaps and answer questions before misinformation starts to spread. Bad actors often exploit the uncertainty brought about by information gaps to churn out wild conspiracy theories and false claims. We create relevant and engaging fact-based information and publish it on the channels where the gap exists to help our audiences arrive at an informed point of view. 

  1. Promote digital literacy

Now more than ever, it is important that people know how to verify and debunk information they receive or see on social media. One challenge fact-checkers face is that we cannot always be present to help people verify claims they receive 24/7. One solution for this is

equipping people with the digital skills necessary to tell if information is accurate or not, which helps to limit the impact of harmful misinformation spread via social media.

In summary, health misinformation has put people’s lives at risk and undermined public health messaging efforts. There’s a need for stronger collaborations between mainstream media, fact-checkers and health experts at regional and global levels for effective responses to make sure people have factual, science-backed information about their health and are not victims to misinformation.

You can follow Viral Facts Africa on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, or via the website. You will also see our content distributed by the many partners of the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance.

If you want to work with Fathm to set up a Viral Facts initiative in your region please get in touch.