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 Table of Contents  
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 152-157

“Infodemic” in a pandemic: COVID-19 conspiracy theories in an african country


1 Department of Mass Communication, The Polytechnic Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria
2 Department of General Studies, The Polytechnic Ibadan; Department of Psychology, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria
3 Department of Sociology, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria
4 Department of Public Administration, The Polytechnic Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria

Date of Submission31-Jul-2020
Date of Decision05-Aug-2020
Date of Acceptance06-Aug-2020
Date of Web Publication8-Sep-2020

Correspondence Address:
Olusola Ayandele
Department of General Studies, Room 2, GNS Annex II, The Polytechnic, Ibadan, PMB 22
Nigeria
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/SHB.SHB_43_20

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  Abstract 


Introduction: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), being the first pandemic to occur in the digital communications era, is rife with “infodemic” of misinformation and conspiracy theories. This article explored popular conspiracy theories about COVID-19 in Nigeria and highlighted the sources of COVID-19 information among Nigerians and perceived trustworthiness of the information sources. It also identified various inaccurate information and conspiracy claims reported by traditional media in Nigeria. Methods: This cross-sectional study was carried out among a sample of 736 undergraduate students of a public tertiary institution in Nigeria. A purposive sampling technique was used to recruit participants through social media platforms. Google Forms was used to host an anonymous questionnaire and the link sent to the Facebook and WhatsApp groups of students' associations. Participation was voluntary and anonymous. The data collection was initiated on May 27 and closed on June 5, 2020. Descriptive statistical analyses were conducted on participants' responses. Results: COVID-19 infection in Nigeria is seen as “an exaggeration by the government and media,” and as a “Chinese biological weapon.” Traditional media is the most popular source of information about COVID-19. Nigeria Centre of Diseases Control is the most trusted source of COVID-19 information, while information from political leaders and social media was perceived as untrustworthy. Conclusion: COVID-19 conspiracy theories were driven majorly on social media, by a dearth of trust in political leadership and “breaking” of inaccurate coronavirus news by traditional media. Stakeholders need to collaborate to debunk conspiracy theories.

Keywords: Conspiracy theories, coronavirus disease 2019, infodemic, media, Nigeria centre for diseases control


How to cite this article:
Olatunji OS, Ayandele O, Ashirudeen D, Olaniru OS. “Infodemic” in a pandemic: COVID-19 conspiracy theories in an african country. Soc Health Behav 2020;3:152-7

How to cite this URL:
Olatunji OS, Ayandele O, Ashirudeen D, Olaniru OS. “Infodemic” in a pandemic: COVID-19 conspiracy theories in an african country. Soc Health Behav [serial online] 2020 [cited 2020 Sep 24];3:152-7. Available from: http://www.shbonweb.com/text.asp?2020/3/4/152/294533




  Introduction Top


Since its discovery in late December 2019, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has led to several socially disruptive behaviors[1] and generated a rapid spread of all kinds of information both offline and online, dominating the headlines of newspapers, radio, and television news and social media posts.[2] The abundance of reported information has led to confusion among the general public on the causes and cures for the disease.[3] The World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that there is a “massive infodemic” of false and accurate information in the media about the novel coronavirus.[2] COVID-19 is characterized by the coronavirus disease pandemic and media “infodemic.” “Infodemic,” a portmanteau of “information” and “epidemic,” refers to the rapid spread of all kinds of information as a result of an epidemic. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause distress, illness, and deaths, so is the society flooded with ambiguous, flip-flopping, and confusing narratives.

The media set agenda by reporting the news, but the media in most countries broadcast all kinds of information about the pandemic; conspiracy claims about coronavirus were inadvertently also reported.[4] Moreover, some people use social media platforms to project inaccurate information concerning the source of the virus, cause panic among people, promote stereotypical views toward China and “Asian looking” persons, suggest unverified and bogus remedies, make people act in contradiction to authority, and subvert sound scientific advisories, intentionally, or unknowingly.[5]

To counter these conspiracy theories and debunk false information, the WHO publishes daily situation reports and provides reliable data to the public. Although most Nigerians are highly knowledgeable about COVID-19 transmission modes, prevention, symptoms, and fatality, many of them support conspiratorial claims about sources of COVID-19.[6] These observations motivated the current study.

COVID-19 is a contagious cluster of acute respiratory illness caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, a virus plausible transmitted through pangolins or bats to humans.[7] The first cases of the novel coronavirus infection were identified in Wuhan, China, by medical personnel who were threatened by Wuhan local authorities for sharing information about the outbreak. As the Chinese government later placed Wuhan on lockdown and canceled the celebrations of the Chinese New Year, there were reports on The Washington Times that the novel coronavirus is a biological weapon developed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.[8] Conspiracy theories about the virus etiology continue as some scientists and media outlets initially referred to the virus as the “Wuhan virus.”[9] President Donald Trump of the United States blamed China for the “Kung flu” and accused the WHO, media, and Democrats of promoting media hysteria, by exaggerating the death rate and potential impact of the outbreak, as a ploy to bring him down.[10]

At the same time, the Chinese government suspected the US military of bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan.[11] On the other hand, billionaire philanthropist, Bill Gates, was accused of financing the creation and spreading of the virus to sell nanotech vaccines against the disease and control the human population,[12] while some other people blamed the outbreak on the electromagnetic fields of 5G mobile networks. Despite these claims being widely debunked, many people tend to continue to stand by these conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories, according to Douglas et al.,[13] can be defined as “attempts to explain the ultimate causes of significant social and political events, and circumstances with claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors.” It is a belief that some powerful organizations or conspirators are responsible for an inexplicable occurrence. Conspiracy theories tend to arise when there are instability or public health emergency, creating greater chaos.[14] This might be due to the psychological distress that accompanies such mysterious events.[13] Supporting conspiracy theories have been linked to distracting from the real issues and engaging in unhealthy behavior,[14] such as self-medication, avoiding vaccination,[15] spreading of inaccurate information, and stigmatization.[5] Although the Internet and social media are believed to facilitate the proliferation of conspiracy theories, recent studies revealed that the varieties of opinion on-line may limit the spread of conspiracy theories.[16],[17]

Media reports of coronavirus disease 2019 conspiracy theories in Nigeria

The etiology and presence of COVID-19 in Nigeria are the popular conspiracy theories about the pandemic in the country. One of the earliest conspiracy claims about COVID-19 was a newspaper report that Nigeria is at risk of being infected by hundreds of thousands of returnee Chinese workers;[18] rumor was rife that Chinese-made medical supplies have been contaminated with coronavirus. The minority caucus at Nigeria's Federal House of Representatives, professional associations of medical doctors, and journalists along with some civil society groups protested against the invitation of a Chinese medical team to the country. They claimed that Nigerian doctors are already doing well in managing the disease and that “. spike in cases and the death toll from COVID-19 in Italy coincided with the arrival of the Chinese [medical] assistance.”[19]

On February 27, 2020, when an Italian citizen became the index case for COVID-19 in Nigeria, the federal government started enforcing preventive measures,[20] but some Nigerians ignored and even violated the lockdown and social distancing rules. Many even felt just as security agencies enforcing the lockdown are killing Nigerians extrajudicially, starvation too would cause more deaths than COVID-19.[20] To summarize some people's perceptions about the pandemic, the governor of Kogi state proclaimed that COVID-19 “is a disease that has been imported, propagated, and forced on the people for no just cause,” to reduce and shorten people's lifespan by creating fear and panic.[21]

In southeastern Nigeria, the governor of Abia state claimed that “… [they] have been promised by God that … COVID-19 won't get to [the state].” A month later, the governor tested positive with the disease and was admitted into an isolation center.[22] Similarly, the Kogi state government that claimed it is free of COVID-19 and accused the Nigeria Centre of Diseases Control (NCDC) of cooking up figures lost its Chief Justice to the disease.[21] In Kano, Nigeria's largest state, where hundreds of people were dying daily and local undertakers overwhelmed,[23] the state government did “verbal autopsy” and refuted allegations that the deaths were COVID-19 related, just as Yobe state, in Northeast Nigeria, declared zero cases on COVID-19 admission and discharged all patients even without negative test results.[24] This high level of denial by political leaders at the state level about the disease is likely to promote conspiracy beliefs among the general public.

Furthermore, as a result of the yawning gap in trust between Nigerians and the government, many members of the public saw COVID-19 as another conspiracy by the ruling elite to receive foreign financial aid and embezzle public funds.[25] Nigerian citizens also maintained that COVID-19 is a “rich man's disease” as the media only report the death of rich and famous Nigerians from the disease.[26]

Despite the good works done by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to eradicate polio and malaria across Africa, conspiracy theorists alleged that the foundation is out to reduce the population of Africa.[12] It was also alleged that Bill Gates gave $10 million bribes to the National Assembly to pass a bill making vaccination mandatory for all Nigerians.[27] Some evangelicals claimed that the 5G network and the unavailable vaccines are tools for the “anti-Christ” and “mark of the beast.”[28] It was said that the virus would not infect, much less kill, people “who maintain cleanliness … and serve God wholeheartedly.”[29]

Many radio and television news channels disproportionately provide sensationalist coverage to contagious diseases, regardless of their actual prevalence.[4],[30] As conspiracy theories are forms of fake news, statistic from a Global Survey revealed that vast majority (87%) of Nigerians have witnessed fake news while on social media and two in five (41%) reported having come across fake news via traditional media sources, while over half (58%) of those who have seen fake news claim to have initially believed it.[31] Misinformation and conspiracy theories during the Ebola crisis contributed to increased morbidity and mortality.[32]

The present study

As of July 31, 2020, there were 42,689 confirmed cases and 878 deaths caused by COVID-19 in Nigeria,[33] figure believers in conspiracy theories claimed are fictitious numbers. Guided by Douglas et al's thesis on conspiracy theories,[13] the present study sought to empirically examine the popularity of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 among Nigerians. It also aimed at shedding light on where Nigerians got their information about COVID-19 from and assessed their level of trust in the COVID-19 information sources. To achieve these goals, the following research questions were developed:

  • RQ. 1: What are the popular conspiracy theories about COVID-19 among Nigerians?
  • RQ. 2: Where do Nigerians get their information about COVID-19 from?
  • RQ. 3: What is their level of trust in the COVID-19 information sources?



  Methods Top


This cross-sectional study was carried out among a sample of undergraduate students of a public tertiary institution in Southwest Nigeria. The survey sample consisted of 736 participants aged 15–55 years (mean = 21.9, standard deviation = 3.70). About half (49.9%) were female and from a low socioeconomic background (55%). Respondents were predominantly Christians (63.6%) and single (97%). A purposive sampling technique was used to recruit participants through Facebook and WhatsApp social media platforms. Google Forms was used to host the anonymous questionnaire and the link sent to the Facebook and WhatsApp groups of students' associations. Participation was voluntary and anonymous, with respondents being assured that their responses would remain confidential and used only for research purposes. All participants provided informed written consent to take part in the study. The study was cleared by the Ethics Review Board of the Department of Mass Communication, The Polytechnic, Ibadan. A web link to the NCDC fact-check on COVID-19 was provided on completion of the survey, as a debrief, to debunk the conspiracy theories. The data collection was initiated on May 27 and closed on June 5, 2020.

Measures

The online questionnaire permitted multiple responses from participants on their awareness of various conspiracy theories about COVID-19 in Nigeria (participants were not informed some of the news were conspiracy theories), their sources of COVID-19 information, and the sources they perceived as trustworthy. They were exposed to a set of five news stories that circulated about COVID-19 in Nigeria and then were asked if they were aware of them. The list included a fact about COVID-19, “a virus plausible transmitted from wild animals,” and four conspiracy theories such as “COVID-19 is a biological weapon designed by the government of China,” “COVID-19 is a plague caused by sins and unbelief of human being,” “COVID-19 is a population control strategy,” and “COVID-19 is an exaggeration by government/news media.” The four information was fact-checked on Google and found to be false. Participants were also asked if they have you received new information about COVID-19 from any of these sources: “traditional media (television, newspapers, radio),” “Social media (Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.),” “The Internet (Google, Wikipedia),” “the NCDC,” “Political leaders (Government officials, ministers, commissioners, etc.),” and “Family/Friends,” and their perceived trustworthiness of the above-mentioned information sources.

Statistical analysis

Descriptive statistics analysis such as frequency and percentages was conducted using IBM SPSS version 22.0 (Released 2013. IBM SPSS Statistics for Windows, Version 22 Armonk, Chicago, Illinois: IBM Corp.). The percentages were weighted due to participants' selected multiple responses.


  Results Top


Media reports of COVID-19 conspiracy theories and misinformation were widely reported as news by the traditional media in Nigeria. Reported news stories include “Coronavirus: Fear grips immigration, port health officials over China killer disease,”[18] “… spike in cases and the death toll from COVID-19 in Italy coincided with the arrival of the Chinese [medical] assistance,”[19] “COVID-19 only out to create fear, panic – Yahaya Bello,”[21] and “… [they] have been promised by God that … COVID-19 won't get to [the state].'[22]

Research Question 1: What are the popular conspiracy theories about coronavirus disease 2019 among Nigerians?

[Table 1] showed that about half (49%) of the respondents believed that COVID-19 infection in Nigeria is “an exaggeration by political leaders and media,” while four in ten (39%) of them posited that COVID-19 is “a Chinese biological weapon.” Only two in ten (22%) cited “wild animals” as the source of the coronavirus.
Table 1: Popular conspiracy theories about coronavirus disease-19 in Nigeria

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Research Question 2: Where do Nigerians get their information about coronavirus disease 2019 from?

The results in [Table 2] showed that the vast majority (82%) of Nigerians got their information about COVID-19 from traditional media, while two in five (40%) got theirs from the NCDC.
Table 2: Usage of sources of information about coronavirus disease-19

Click here to view


Research Question 3: What is their level of trust in the coronavirus disease 2019 information sources?

The majority of the respondents trusted COVID-19 information from the NCDC (76%), whereas <2in ten trusted political leaders (18%) and social media (16%) [Table 3].
Table 3: Trust in sources of information about coronavirus disease-19

Click here to view



  Discussion Top


The article identified various inaccurate information and conspiracy claims reported by traditional media which confirmed the assertion that media provide sensationalist coverage to contagious diseases and inadvertently report inaccurate information, including conspiracy theories.[4],[18],[19],[21],[22],[30],[31]

From the findings of the study, it is evident that the majority of Nigerians perceived COVID-19 as “an exaggeration by political leaders and media” which they possibly linked to an avenue by the political class to embezzle public funds.[27] A similar skepticism about the existence of COVID-19 was reported in the United States and Uganda.[17],[33] The claim that the virus is “a Chinese biological weapon” found support in the claims of the Nigeria Medical Association and the Nigeria Union of Journalists.[19] The two earlier mentioned findings were confirmed by a US study which found that three in five (60%) of Americans agreed that coronavirus was created in the laboratory and its threat is being exaggerated.[17] It is also possible that the many Nigerians who indicated that COVID-19 is “a population control strategy” did so because of social media messages and the bribery allegation against Bill Gates in the country.[12],[27] As some preacher claimed,[29] some people believed that it is “a plague caused by sins.” This is why the NCDC should rope in religious leaders in tackling the pandemic.[34] It is worthy of notice that “an exaggeration by news media” was the least popular conspiracy theory in an earlier study,[6] the claim is now very popular.[17],[35] Believing these conspiracy theories seem to have contributed to the low level of compliance with precautionary behavior by some Nigerians.[26]

The high patronage of traditional media agrees with research findings that news consumption increases during the pandemic.[16] The findings also agree with the position of a study in Canada which revealed that more Canadians get their COVID-19 news from traditional media (television) than from social media.[36] As people tend to rely on traditional media for their COVID-19 information, print and electronic media need to provide accurate information.[37],[38] Contradictory information from the media and different government officials can increase misinformation and promote COVID-19 conspiracy theories.[18],[19],[21],[24],[26]

The reported trust in COVID-19 information from the NCDC aligns with a survey commissioned by the Reuters which indicated that respondents expressed get deal of confidence in health authorities and health organizations like the WHO.[39] Since Nigerians believe more in reports given by the NCDC, this should be leveraged upon by the organization. The findings' high level of trust in the traditional media by Nigerians corroborates findings from research conducted in Belgium which asserted that watching television news predicted a greater belief in public health measures.[40] Since the traditional media is a trusted information source from the public's perspective, the NCDC and policymakers should use it to disseminate important COVID-19 information.[41] The lack of trust in political leaders was also reported in Canada,[36] as this could lower compliance with COVID-19 advisory.[25]

To curb misinformation about COVID-19, the NCDC and other relevant organizations should actively use the media to spread accurate information to the public. Conspiracy theories can also be countered when people engage in the in-depth reading of the whole story, not just news headlines, and check for correctness of the information. The traditional media agencies should engage in pre and post fact-checking of news items to verify issues of concern before reporting. Furthermore, Nigeria's political leaders should ensure good governance and accountability to win public trust which is needed to effectively tackle COVID-19.

Limitations

The main contribution of this research is to identify popular conspiracy theories in Nigeria, likely sources of information about COVID-19 and participants' perceived level of trust in those information sources. An additional strength is its confirmation of “infodemic” about COVID-19 in Nigeria which is presently undermining public health efforts. The results further broaden our understanding of the traditional media reportage of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Since the sample is recruited from a university student sample, the results may not be generalized to the entire populace. Other potential limitations of this study include the use of online surveys which has a risk for self-selection bias; selection through purposive sampling strategy which produces a nonrepresentative sample; the use of self-report data which makes it hard to rule out bias; and the use of descriptive statistics which make it impossible to infer. Further studies on the influence of conspiracy theories on adherence to preventive behavior and compliance with government regulations are needed.


  Conclusion Top


COVID-19 conspiracy theories are pervasive among Nigerians. The most popular COVID-19 conspiracy theories in Nigeria are claims that COVID-19 is “an exaggeration by political leaders and media” and “a Chinese biological weapon.” Information about COVID-19 in Nigeria is mostly gotten from traditional and social media. While Nigerians trust the accuracy of COVID-19 information from the NCDC and traditional media, they distrust comments by their political leaders and information on social media about COVID-19. Misleading information such as conspiracy theories and fake news can promote unhealthy practices, greater crisis, and stigmatization; curbing the spread of coronavirus includes fighting conspiracy theories, ensuring accurate information and building trust between the government and people.

Acknowledgment

The authors express their special thanks to students of The Polytechnic, Ibadan who participated in the online classes during the lockdown and responded voluntarily to this survey.

Financial support

Nil.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.



 
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