Fact-Checking During Health Emergencies: What We’ve Learned at Viral Facts Africa

Viral Facts Africa turns two today!

It feels like only yesterday that Viral Facts was launched as part of the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance to counter dangerous health misinformation just as COVID-19 vaccine rollouts were starting in Africa.

The initiative has covered a remarkable amount of ground over the last two years- we’ve produced more than 550 videos shared in more than 30 countries and viewed hundreds of millions of times.

We’ve been taking stock of the project these past few weeks and would love to share a few lessons learnt about health fact-checking and infodemic management over the past two years:

Collaboration is everything

In 2021, our work was almost entirely focused on COVID-19. Collaborating with fact-checkers and public health agencies who are part of the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance made it easier to identify and prioritise false narratives and information gaps about COVID-19 vaccines that need to be addressed, and disseminate factual information to a wider audience. 

Digital literacy is critical to limit the spread of false information

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout was accompanied by a flood of information and conspiracy theories, which in turn fuelled vaccine hesitancy. We worked tirelessly with our fact-checking partners to debunk false narratives and make sure we covered as much as we could. But fact-checkers cannot always meet audiences at their point of news consumption to help them debunk every single claim they aren’t sure about. It is important that people know how to verify and debunk information they receive or see on social media. One thing we have done consistently is equipping people with the skills necessary to tell if the information they come across is accurate or not, which helps to limit the impact of harmful misinformation spread online.

Pre-bunking is essential, but might not be enough in some situations

In 2022, public attention slowly began shifting from COVID-19. Countries reopened their economies. We could finally attend conferences in person!  But COVID-19 misinformation persisted. We started to see the spillover effect of COVID misinformation on non-COVID-related public health issues. A polio vaccination drive in Malawi following an outbreak reported in February 2022 was accompanied by false information that it was a COVID-19 vaccine campaign in disguise. False narratives about COVID also spilled over to MPOX, and we prebunked and debunked.

Then in September, Uganda declared an outbreak of Ebola. And as with any new outbreak, misinformation followed. We were suddenly thrust into the world of social and behavioural change communication. We worked closely with risk communications and social & behaviour change communications professionals and quickly realised the ‘how’ you share the facts was crucial in this context. 

Ebola is a highly infectious and deadly disease, and one of the public health measures taken to limit its spread is safe and dignified burials for the victims. This follows strict protocols, meaning the loved ones and community may not participate in the burials as they’d like. Our videos would most likely be viewed by someone who had lost a loved one. Every word you chose matters, and your tone matters. Getting the facts across is important, but we also need to walk a mile in our audience’s shoes. Empathise with the plight of your audience.

You need to earn the trust of your audiences by not only giving them facts but also helping them critically think through their fears and beliefs.

Enter 2023. We started off the new year responding to multiple cholera outbreaks across several African countries. Malawi has been the worst hit so far, and the year-long outbreak has been worsened by dangerous misinformation which has led to the attack on healthcare workers in some parts of the country. Some people have also refused to seek proper treatment at healthcare facilities because of false information circulating in their communities about what happens at the treatment centres. 

Every week, we see misinformation pop up in Malawi. Cholera is a common disease in African countries, but people in Malawi do not understand why the outbreak has been a year long. They don’t understand why it has been so severe, and we’re seeing claims that this is not cholera but a strange disease. Before Cyclone Freddy made landfall, we spoke to health experts to understand why the outbreaks have been so severe, and climate change was one of the key factors.

Freddy has battered Malawi and Mozambique and left a trail of devastation in its wake. Now people do not understand why the cyclone was so devastating. Again, scientists have attributed this to climate change.

We’re only 3 months into 2023 but the greatest lesson learnt thus far is that it is crucial for public health communicators to start prioritizing the issue of climate change and its impact on public health. As the global climate continues to shift and extreme weather events become more common, it is vital that people have accurate information about climate change. By raising awareness public health communicators can play a significant role in mitigating the spread of dangerous misinformation fuelled by a lack of understanding about climate change and its impact on public health.

With the proliferation of misinformation we’ve been seeing during disease outbreaks, it’s important to provide accurate information to people in a timely manner to ensure that they have the information they need to make informed decisions about their health and well-being.

There’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to health fact-checking and infodemic management, but it’s encouraging to see how far this field has grown in the past 3 years. We hope more people continue to join, so we can all help to make a difference, both online and offline.