Social media fuels coronavirus jitters with wild rumours

think before you click
Do your part — think before you click. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

On Friday, March 13 at around 11am, I received about 25 WhatsApp messages — all on the announcement regarding the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the country. Two hours later, images of panic shoppers in a local supermarket filled my timeline. The bubbling lava underneath the surface had erupted — Kenyans were officially in panic mode.

There was a meme saying that WhatsApp is the leading cause of the fast global spread of the Covid-19 virus — and I agree, even before Kenya had a confirmed case, we all knew it was coming. According to NewsWhip, a predictive media intelligence company, many of the coronavirus stories getting shared the most on social media are packaged to drive fear rather than build understanding about the illness.

An example is a viral video on WhatsApp showing men and women ‘intentionally spreading the virus by coughing on strangers’. The video had no date stamp and was not verified — probably a prank video from years back.

It is easy to say that we should keep tabs on what official media are broadcasting or publishing on the pandemic, but the digital age has brought with it challenges. In this era of fake news, unsolicited information spreads like wildfire.

This has pushed governments, including Kenya, to enforce strict laws on the Internet and cyber-related offences. On Monday, detectives arrested a man in Mwingi over claims of publishing misleading coronavirus information. According to the Kenya Cyber Crimes Act, publishing information that is calculated to cause or results in panic is liable to a fine not exceeding Sh5 million or ten-year imprisonment, or both.


Don’t get it twisted, I’m not blaming social media as the cause of fear and uncertainty in most people, but it is a driver. Health institutions and government agencies are continually calling on citizens to remain calm despite the global pandemic. Social media organisations are also trying their best to call hoax on inaccurate information.

WhatsApp users were recently put on alert about a new hoax message making the rounds that claims freshly boiled garlic water can cure coronavirus. There is currently no specific treatment for the virus and such messages can cause more harm than good.

Google and other online platforms have been actively trying to root out misinformation about coronavirus.

In equal measure, accurate information on the illness is being shared.

There is a rise in the number of individuals and organisations sharing facts on the illness and how to protect yourself and loved ones. Many have taken to packaging FAQs and related documents into creative visual aids that are not only easy to share but also attractive to read.

Get the whole story — don’t go for the headline and run with it. Take your time, read the whole story and see if it has any further details.

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. Most messages right now are designed to induce fear making you more likely to share it. If you have an eerie or weird feeling about, first check to see if it is true.

Do your part — think before you click. And remember to wash your hands as well as preventive measures!

The writer communications manager, East Africa at Aga Khan University.