Dis- and misinformation can spread just as viciously as a virus – especially via social media – it erodes trust in governmental policy and measures against the pandemic and as a consequence weakens the commitment of the population to support and to live with pandemic restrictions2. Media dynamics that can be observed at the moment are not new. It is similar to that of other news situations – be it a terrorist attack or a plane crash: first, something bad happens, then information spreads in social media within minutes, finally media reports. People read posts or articles, look for more information, for certainty. But because there is still little secure knowledge, there is room for rumors, misinformation, and even conspiracy theories. The effect is intensified by the fact that the level of knowledge around the center of the news situation – in this case, coronavirus disease – can change constantly, and what seems certain today could be disproved tomorrow.
The poisoning impact of the mixture of unsecured information, out-of-context or false news, and conspiracy theories was visible during the Ebola crisis 2014 in West Africa and 2018 in DR Congo. Experts have agreed that misinformation was one of the lead contributors to the Ebola outbreak. During the Ebola epidemic in the DRC, there were rumors that ‘white people’, ‘the central government in Kinshasa’, or the ‘international aid organizations’ were behind the outbreak. Trust in medical workers and aid organizations was low and people didn’t cooperate with authorities, which lead to a very quick distribution of the virus epidemic.
On the other hand, it is a fact that we see in the context of the current Corona Pandemia a very interested, Information-dedicated public. Generally, people worldwide are able to access a lot of different sources – and many of these sources are originated in science. Theoretically, there is access to a variety and high quantity of well researched professional and fact-based information!
This is also the result of a current analysis of the Reuters Institute3 which examined the Info-use since the beginning of March disclosing general trends in global news consumption on Corona: News use is up in all the examined countries, and most people are using either social media, search engines, video sites, and messaging applications (or combinations of these) to get news and information about coronavirus. And there is a second result too: people with low levels of formal education rely less on professional news organizations for news and information about coronavirus and are more likely to rely on social media and messaging applications.
The problem is not that there is not enough reliable news – the problem is the amount and irritating quantity of new and a digital distribution, where fact-checking does not play a sufficient role – be it on the side of the platforms, be it on the side of the users. Mis- and disinformation can proliferate when there is a lack of, or conversely, an overabundance of information. In this sense we are really confronted with an “infodemic” – a word raised by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on 15 February (“we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”)
Social Media play a special role
It is not only the Reuters Institute research that marks the special role Social Media is playing in proliferating wrong, misleading, or half-true information. We see the above-mentioned linkage between people with low levels of formal education relying more on social media and messaging applications. And we witnessed the real consequences of viral disinformation even in very developed media markets like the UK or other European countries: Even there, disinformation is often followed by quite real violent actions: In recent weeks, more than 20 mobile phone masts have been damaged in Great Britain, a few days after conspiracy theorists claimed that there is a connection between the mobile phone standard 5G and Covid-19.
Disinformation is more harmful in weaker media markets
But disinformation is of course even more harmful in countries with weaker communication infrastructure –be it technically, professionally, or politically. If there is a weak internet penetration, an economically unsustainable media market, low journalistic capacities, or censorship by the government – disinformation will get broader audiences and a lot of shares, especially on social media. And these weaker media markets are very often the countries where the pandemic is still in its early stages – and where the disease will hit a population with low access to news organizations.
A very important factor for disinformation going viral is influencers. A source for false and misleading information, conspiracy, and even pure lies not only spread by social media users, are political leaders – not just on Twitter but also in government press conferences. A current example is the proposal by the American president to inject people with disinfectants or to introduce strong light into their bodies. If political decision-makers spread such disinformation, the consequences are often devastating. They are engines distributing information – be it right or wrong, news or fake!4
Limiting the impact of disinformation? Forget the one-fits-all-solution!
What are helpful approaches to debunk dis- and misinformation? To start with bad news: There is no “one-fits-all-solution”. User behavior is locally specific. Differing levels of internet penetration (see data here), the rising scale of Social Media usage (see data here), and the diversity of Social Media usage worldwide create a need for targeted responses. As a consequence, effective and efficient measures to counteract and debunk disinformation must be different from region to region. We need a clear and differentiated picture of the local conditions: people’s favored channels, most trusted sources, level of literacy and media literacy, and preferred languages, formats for receiving and sharing messages5. Starting with this base-line-analysis we could easily develop good ways to limit disinformation. The concrete answers could differ, but they all follow a very principal idea: Target groups where they communicate!
Let’s deal with local differences
In DRC, where the internet penetration is only 7%, and where word of mouth remains the most common way for information to spread, the direct interaction with multiplicators and communicators in the communities and radio was key to limit disinformation during the Ebola crisis.
In Cambodia, GIZ is currently supporting the Cambodian Ministry for Health in cooperation with WHO to deliver facts and figures about Corona, because Facebook is the most commonly used social media platform and false or hysterical information circulates widely on the platform.
In Nigeria and Ghana, an open-source software (SORMAS) is part of the answer collecting and communication concrete facts and figures about cases of infections, using Apps or phone calls to take note of them. This was developed by the Helmholtz-Zentrum for infectious disease. GIZ – on behalf of the German Ministry for development cooperation – is helping to implement SORMAS in the Ecowas region.
For Africa, where only 36% of the population had internet access in 2019 and where traditional media could not fill this gap, especially people in rural areas are cut off from public information, which can lead to severe problems during epidemics. Mobile phones are part of the solution here because more than 80% of Africans have access to mobile phones.
For these regions, GIZ developed, together with the NGO Viamo, a tool called “Call vs.corona” – a software through which individuals can easily access factual and at the same time entertaining information by participating in a phone quiz, which works as follows: People call a free hotline, where they navigate through prerecorded questions by using their phone keyboard, which works with the most basic phones. Throughout the quiz, people learn about preventive measures such as social distancing and hyenic routines. The voice-response software has advantages over SMS-information, as illiterate people can be reached very easily. Additionally, by using the quiz format, messages are delivered in a concise but humorous way and information on preventive measures against the spread of the virus can be distributed widely.
To help stop the spread of the coronavirus, GIZ is developing new ideas like these examples and is refocusing existing projects. It is taking a wide variety of approaches, from setting up early-warning systems and combating fake news on Facebook, to ensuring barrier-free access to information. What we learned from our work on responding to global health crises in the past, is that there need to be both targeted responses (countering false information on social media, community-based approaches to trustful dissemination of information) as well as support for building up communication infrastructure.
A successful approach: working on different layers with various partners
Debunking alone will not be successful, because it always comes too late, is a reaction and following media development research result will not have a remarkable outreach to bring the “correct” facts through. To develop customized regional answers it is important to develop them with a local partner, it needs an interdisciplinary approach on competences of users and journalists, on infrastructure and policy. Measures should be taken on very different layers:
- Technical infrastructure and access to information: internet penetration, media, and platforms
- Attractive, concise, comprehensive and fact-based content
- Press freedom – a governmental context where objective information, independent journalism are not oppressed or manipulated
- Fact-checking engagement of platforms6 and media
- Good level of digital literacy among users
- Verified databases by multilateral/international organizations like the WHO with cross-checked facts and figures as a reference system
After the crisis is before the crisis: building up digital literacy and enhance resilience
Good crisis management lives from a clear commitment and common understanding of roles, responsibilities, and duties. This is not the case in this crisis: political leaders are spreading wrong and misleading information or only part of the information. States are neglecting the problem or downplaying the disease. The origins of incomplete and misleading information rarely come from simple citizens on social media but from political leaders, propaganda, and the fact that governments simply neglect the facts of the pandemic.
On the other hand, the Corona-crisis is abused by a number of autocratic regimes to tighten the pressure on independent journalists, on bloggers and citizen reporters, and enhance their censorship of the media system itself. Current examples are Iraq, where the news agency Reuters lost their license, or Egypt where The Guardian reporters who reported about a growing number of infections are forced to leave the country – or China, where state propaganda is now creating a positive frame concerning the pandemic-management and where critical citizen journalists have been arrested.
This is why dealing with disinformation in the Corona crisis is also about developing suitable instruments to strengthen the resilience of the media, media users, journalists, and citizens in dealing with disinformation, to provide them with suitable instruments to distinguish facts from fake. This is in our own interest because it makes us more confident and resistant in dealing with disinformation, for which not only Corona can be an occasion. In this respect, it is worth working on it, because after the crisis is before the crisis.
 This is the written edited version of my input at the Debate pandemic not panic – disinformation and global health https://www.friendsofeurope.org/events/pandemic-not-panic-disinformation-and-global-health/
This event is part of the Development Policy Forum (DPF), oganised by Friends of Europe, which brings together a number of important development actors, including the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) I work for as the Head of Media and Public Relations, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the European Investment Bank (EIB), the United Nations and the World Bank.
 Unchecked medical advice can have a detrimental impact on the health of the population and the healthcare system itself, which lacks capacity. For successful navigation of the crisis it is critically important that people have access to news and information that they trust and that can help them understand the coronavirus crisis, what they can do to protect themselves.
 Be it in the global north or the global south: the number of misleading contributions to corona is high(this also applies to highly developed media markets in Europe, as research by the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the NDR at the end of April showed. Misinformation is mainly distributed via social media – and the main hotspot is youtube. In only a few days, 18 videos containing misinformation about the coronavirus were viewed more than twelve million times on the video platform youtube. The recipe for misinformation on Corona is very common: Currently, more and more supposed experts from completely unrelated fields are appearing on Social Media. The problem: opinions are mixed up with facts, speculation, and conspiracy theory. These contributions sow doubt but are difficult to verify.
 Initiatives from the social media and platforms itself to eliminate and limit false information are very important. For example in Nigeria, where WhatsApp is trying again to limit the amount of misinformation through its platform. The messaging app is deploying changes to its settings that limit how often a message can be forwarded: once a message has now been forwarded more than five times, users will only be able to forward it to one chat at a time.