How rumors and fake news cause fear and mistrust during pandemics in Liberia

By Liberian journalist Fredrick PW Gaye, first published in Smart News Liberia.

Controlling the spread of diseases to reduce the effects of infection on a population is an important mandate of public health. Media reports on pandemics can provide important information to the public, and in turn, can induce positive health practices. Media coverage of pandemics has varied by country, time period, and media outlet, ranging from outright censorship to extensive coverage. However, the nature of media coverage on pandemics in Liberia causes panic among citizens. Such reporting leads citizens to lose trust in Liberia’s already struggling health system.

Despite ongoing sensitization activities across the country, many citizens refuse to visit COVID-19 testing centers and other medical facilities for fear of being confirmed positive of the virus. To others, the virus is considered a death sentence, judging from the Ebola situation where rumors, fake news, and hearsay flooded the media. In the absence of laboratory testing, some media institutions and individuals disseminate information. It can be recalled that during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, many stopped visiting health centers and treatment units for fear of being infected and chlorinated to death.

There are various information channels. Some media institutions get information from relevant institutions and social media and publish or broadcast through their institutions while other social media users directly spread the information to their families and friends. Listening to various radio stations, many Liberians surmise that no one survives the virus.

It can be recalled that in May of last year, WHO Regional Office for Africa predicted that 83, 000 to 190,000 people in Africa could die of COVID-19 and 29 million to 44 million could get infected in the first year of the pandemic if containment measures failed. The research, which is based on prediction modeling, looks at 47 countries in the WHO African Region with a total population of one billion. In March of 2020, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Ethiopian director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the number of cases in the continent was likely higher and urged African countries to “wake up” to the increasing threat. “The best advice for Africa is to prepare for the worst and prepare today,” he said.  

These reports again flooded the social and mainstream media outlets in Liberia, further increasing panic and fear.

The fear and panic such a media report creates sometimes lead to violence against patients and their family members. Due to stigma, citizens and communities rise against one another.

For instance, a chaotic incident took place on the sunny afternoon of Saturday, April 11, 2020, in Barnesville Estate, a suburb of Monrovia, as state security officers struggled to disperse angry residents that attempted to set ablaze a lady’s house because her son, a government official, had reportedly tested positive of COVID-19.

Had it not been the prompt intervention of state security officers, the mob violence would have succeeded and led to the loss of lives because angry residents were seen with petrol bombs and other materials to burn the lady’s house.

The angry residents expressed fears of death and felt the entire community was stigmatized because the lady’s son tested positive for the virus.  “They want all of us to die. In fact, we the residents of this community are being stigmatized because this lady’s son has brought Coronavirus on us,” Ms. Bendu Varney, a resident, remarked. Comments by other residents were similar to Bendu’s.

The situation boils down to the impact of media reporting in Liberia, especially on pandemics and other health crises where awful aspects, such as death, are highlighted more than recoveries and prevention measures.

The higher number of deaths occurring in communities and ordinary health facilities than at COVID-19 treatment centers indicates the style of communication.

Curbing the spread of any virus outbreak requires meticulous and robust public health interventions as well as effective risk communication strategies. So, when rumors and fake news are added to news of fatalities penetrating the public sphere, the virus itself does not seem to be the only problem to solve.

The confirmation of the first Covid-19 case in Liberia in March 2019 sparked a lot of rumors, leaving social media buzzing with thousands of posts and comments, with some coming from media sources and others based on people’s perceptions.

And these perceptions, which come from non-scientists or non-health experts, are most likely based on unconfirmed studies, rumor, misinformation and misconceptions.

This situation resembles that which unfolded during the Ebola epidemic back in 2014, when denials, conspiracy theories, and fake rumors about the viral hemorrhagic fever significantly disrupted public health interventions.

Months later, severe damage was already done after more than a thousand people had died before the country would realize that effective communication was vital to rolling back the epidemic.

Now, as Covid-19 spreads its tentacles across the world, including Liberia, experienced health journalists, and public health experts are additionally warning that spreading rumors during outbreaks doesn’t only impede health interventions; it also spreads fear and panic in the population.

Already there have been varieties of fake news and rumors spreading in Liberia. Recently, a rumor spread that the government was preparing to spray the air as a means of eradicating Covid-19. Others also spread rumors that the “spraying” was intended to infect a significant amount of the population with Coronavirus.

Before the “spraying” rumor gained traction, several social media users shared a fake certificate purportedly signed by the United Nations Secretary-General to the first confirmed patient of Covid-19 in the country, declaring him cured of the virus.

The fake certificate, the government later said, was part of a scheme to convince the public that there were no cases in the country. It followed pockets of discussions on the radio, social media, and in communities; speculating that there were no cases of the virus in the country and that the government was only trying to attract some of the money dedicated to stopping the virus provided by the World Bank and other international organizations.

Dr Mosoka Fallah, former director-general of the National Public Health Institute of Liberia (NPHIL), expressed a “passionate appeal” to Liberians while cautioning that “in the midst of this very serious outbreak, people are bent on spreading misinformation and disinformation”.

“This is so dangerous to the country,” the head of Liberia’s public health institute warned of the rumor that had to do with the spraying of the country.

“How can you do this to your country? In the midst of this thing when we face a global threat… you’re being too unfair to the country.”

But Joyce Kilikpo, a Liberian public health practitioner, says rumors are easily believed by many Liberians because they lack trust in the government.

This is a situation that is exacerbated during disease and virus outbreaks, she added, while suggesting that “clear and concise information” can be the antidote to misinformation and mistrust during health emergencies.

“We need to make sure during public health crises that our trusted institutions, clinicians, churches, mosques, community organizations, local NGOs, and the media are better educated and informed on what’s going on,” said the head of the local NGO, Public Health Initiative Liberia.

Like Dr Fallah, Ms. Kilikpo thinks the growing rate of misinformation and rumors is threatening the response and preparedness efforts put in place to curb the further spread of the virus.

She suggests that frequent updates about the outbreak by health authorities would likely limit the spread of misinformation.

“Telling the population exactly what you are doing and what you are not doing helps to regain their trust and allow the people to adhere to messages for behavior change during public health emergencies.”

There have been ostensibly swift responses in refuting misinformation by government spokespersons but the threat of fake news and rumor are still hovering.

Mr. Charles B. Coffey, President of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL) said: “As journalists and media experts, we have pivotal roles to play in Liberia in promoting best practices for covering pandemics. We must change the nature of reporting to a more positive aspect in educating media consumers on what constitutes good or bad news. Since social media users are predominantly young people who spread the information to their families and friends, universities and other journalism training institutions should design programs and courses on how to evaluate health information in the case of pandemics.”

Coffey said that during an outbreak, in the absence of accurate information, people may look to alternative sources that are dangerously misleading, saying for example that Ebola can be cured using plants and herbs. That can lead to a range of unwanted outcomes, including unjustified panic. “In my view, it would be ideal if all news articles on outbreaks at least briefly mention or link readers to practical information, even when discussing the nonmedical aspects of the disease. But I also believe that the public would benefit from understanding how the media works during outbreaks. People should complement what they learn from the news with occasional visits to official websites and social media channels. It’s never too early to start,” he said.

Hilton Menlee, the head of Radio Gbarnga in central Liberia thinks that reporting on death more than proving education in the media has always had a major impact on people. As it is capable of influencing and even manipulating their thoughts and beliefs, Menlee says there will be pros and cons. “Also at this point, through the occurrence of panic buying and hoarding of resources it is becoming clear that social media has over-exaggerated the issue and people are living for their pre-apocalyptic dystopian behavior,” he says.

A situation report by the WHO at the time stated that the death rate was between 3-4%. Although it was low, people are still in a state of panic. Nevertheless, some media platforms’ accounts on Twitter and Instagram are combating this exaggeration through official statistics and facts on what Covid-19 is and how can one avoid it. It has also provided valuable information to those who were unaware of the virus’s capabilities.

Dr Joseph Quaye, Head of C. B. Dunbar Health Center in Bong County, central Liberia says: “I believe that the media always tends to spread more fear than try to calm people down, especially as we can see it now in the coronavirus outbreak. Ironically I was able to relate the coronavirus outbreak on social media to how mass media manufactures news.”

Challenges

According to the Thompson Foundation, the challenge for journalists is ensuring their stories are based on truth, not opinions; and science, not speculation.

But in Liberia, the major challenges journalists face in covering pandemics include: (a) Low knowledge in health reporting, (b) Lack of safety while reporting the story and (c) Lack of adequate resources

Overall, support for the Liberian media in recent years has not been encouraging. Public and private institutions blame global financial problems for them not doing business with the media as expected. Many humanitarian and other civil society groups do not have an adequate budgets for the media.

This creates constraints for media owners and they are unable to provide adequate salaries for workers. At times, media workers are not paid for months.

Prospects

Despite the challenges, there are opportunity indicators.  The first is that media engagements and other media trainings are parts of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

There is a Mass Communication Department at the University of Liberia that exclusively teaches journalism and other media disciplines. While the major focus is on print and electronic media, there is a prospect that a course be designed to train journalists on specialized health reporting.  What this needs is adequate budgetary support.

Furthermore, Liberian journalists have a passion for the profession. In a harsh economic situation, they continue to play their roles. Many Liberians get information from radio stations and newspapers as well as social media.

The Press Union of Liberia (PUL) also stands ready to train journalists in specialized reporting including health. Press Union of Liberia President Charles Coffey continues to call for support for the union and other media development organizations as they provide workshops for journalists in reporting and ethics.

As a way of encouraging journalists to report on health, the Press Union provides the “Best Health Reporter” award to its annual awards program for journalists and media institutions. Also, significant improvement is being made.