Navigating speculation and contagion conspiracies in Africa

May 6, 2020

     By Maria Faciolince     

Adejoke Adeboyejo is a freelance writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. She writes about healthcare, women and other development issues.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, conspiracy theories have flourished and spread like the virus itself. Some believe the virus is bioengineered, while others say the pandemic is a conspiracy of big pharmaceutical companies or a plot hatched by Bill Gates. A popular one says that 5G technology is responsible directly or indirectly for the spread of the virus.  

The 5G technology link to coronavirus is one of the most touted and it has been shared on many social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It was being given credence by well-known people including celebrities such as John Cusack and Woody Harrelson. However, radio waves used by the 5G technology can only spread computer viruses – not human ones. And Covid-19 has spread in countries that are yet to adopt the 5G technology such as Iran and India, yet not to countries which have adopted 5G technology, such as Lesotho which has had it since 2018.

“When people know little about a disease, it is regarded as an unseen and powerful enemy”

So what’s the deal behind this theory? The 5G-coronavirus conspiracy theory has been presented on two fronts: that the radiation from 5G makes you sick or it compromises the immune system, making you vulnerable to diseases. But for those readers interested in the scientific details around this: in 5G technology, just like the 4G before it, radio waves emitted are low frequency and non-ionizing radiation, which are not strong enough to heat the human body or weaken the immune system. On the electromagnetic spectrum, they are on the opposite end to ionizing radiation sources such as x-rays, gamma rays and ultraviolet rays. Furthermore, according to the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) which updated its guidelines in March 2020, 5G technologies will not be able to cause harm when followingthe new guidelines.

The role of conspiracies in crisis

Conspiracy theories have always accompanied epidemics. In the early 1830s, as cholera swept across Europe, many believed the disease was part of a government-led conspiracy to reduce the numbers of the poor. The flu pandemic of 1918 was believed to have been spread by German submarines around the world. 

In the African continent, conspiracy theories and fake news take hold because they usually feed on the fear, misinformation and superstitions of people. When Ebola ravaged parts of West Africa, several misconceptions about the disease helped to spread it even further and prevented the sick from seeking treatment. The bottom line is that when people know little about a disease, it is regarded as an unseen and powerful enemy, and there is a tendency to give a face to the enemy.

There is palpable fear with the Coronavirus crisis across Africa for several reasons. One of them is the discourse about the state of healthcare in Africa and how health facilities in the continent would not be able to cope in the event of major outbreaks. Seeing the devastation caused by the pandemic in nations with very great healthcare systems, such as Italy and Spain, further drove home the message that Africans would die by the millions if coronavirus spread rapidly as it did in Europe and the United States.

But compared to previous health crises, social media has played a big influence in the way information has been disseminated and (re)produced about the Coronavirus pandemic. When SARS broke out in 2003, none of the social media platforms or mobile devices we use today existed; most people depended on news outlets for information. Today, countless social media websites around the world allow people to obtain information on the go, even when the information is inaccurate or untrue.

There’s also the problem of online bots on internet platforms that spread false information. In Africa, more than half a billion people have internet access and use one social media platform or another, it is therefore inevitable that fake news will spread. Research on tackling misinformation has shown that people often share news they know are not true, usually with the excuse of letting the receiver judge its accuracy for themselves.

Then there’s the important role played by social leaders. In Africa, there’s a very high tendency for people to accept information that comes from cultural/traditional and religious authorities, rather than information based on scientific facts. For example a well-known minister in Nigeria said the 5G technology could cause health problems and many believe that the present pandemic is an apocalyptic signal for the end of the world. A religious leader also countered government’s decisions to cancel religious meetings, which led to riots.

Preventing misinformation

Social media and other media platforms have taken measures to reduce the spread of misinformation about coronavirus. YouTube has banned videos linking 5G networks to the coronavirus pandemic, while Twitter announced increases in the use of machine learning to help take down false information. A search on Facebook for ‘5G Coronavirus’ yields reliable information from credible news organizations, health organizations and hospitals, because the company took measures to remove false claims that link Covid-19 to 5G technology.

Conspiracy theories and misinformation tend to create deep divisions. They also distract from the real issues that need to be tackled. What does help, in this case and in so many others, is focusing on providing information that will guide behavioural change to keep safe and prevent contagion. Posts that encourage people to get involved in relief efforts also benefit instead of confuse. 

For example, in Nigeria a company known as Wellvis created an online Covid-19 Triage Tool which allows users to self-assess their coronavirus risk category based on their symptoms and exposure history. The app has been used by more than  half a million people globally since March 19. In South Africa, WhatsApp is used to run an interactive chatbot which answers questions about Covid-19 myths, symptoms and treatment. This service has reached over 3.5 million users in five languages since it was launched in March.

At this crucial time, people need to shift their focus away from sharing misinformation and find ways to make impact in their communities and help others.

Featured image: Nenad Stojkovic, CC license