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role of media in curtailing the spread of misinformation concerning coronavirus (COVID-19) in Nigeria

Project topic for Mass Communication department.



1.1       Background of the Study

The coronavirus has given rise to a flood of conspiracy theories, disinformation and propaganda, eroding public trust and undermining health officials in ways that could elongate and even outlast the pandemic. Claims that the virus is a foreign bioweapon, a partisan invention or part of a plot to re-engineer the population have replaced a mindless virus with more familiar, comprehensible villains. Each claim seems to give a senseless tragedy some degree of meaning, however dark. Rumors of secret cures- diluted bleach, turning off your electronics, bananas — promise hope of protection from a threat that not even world leaders can escape.  Conspiracy linking 5G and coronavirus has taken hold in the Nigeria and being peddled by conspiracy theorists and celebrities on social media. The theory runs roughly like this: the rollout of faster 5G internet is either causing or acclerating the spread of the coronavirus. It's hard to pinpoint the source of the theory, and BI first heard a variant of the rumor in early March, but it appears to have picked up steam during the first week of April. The conspiracy theory and its various offshoots are baseless but have led to real-world harm, with several arson attacks thought to have been perpetrated on 5G masts around the country. The post rested on the pre-existing conspiracy theory that 5G suppresses people's immune systems. It was posted to an anti-5G Facebook group, and was subsequently marked by Facebook as misinformation. According to Facebook, the post had just over 300 shares.

There is no evidence to suggest that Wuhan was the very first Chinese city to start building out 5G, but rather multiple reports found by Full Fact said it was among multiple cities selected to pilot the technology.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus (WHO 2020). Cases of COVID-19 first emerged in late December 2019, when a mysterious illness was reported in Wuhan, China. The cause of the disease was soon confirmed as a novel coronavirus, and the infection has since spread to many countries worldwide and has become a pandemic disease. Several websites have published information about COVID-19 and have given different instructions to their users about ways to prevent the spread of the virus, such as keeping a distance between themselves and others, using masks, and washing their hands (Hernández-García I, Giménez-Júlvez T. 2020). Social media has become a source of disseminating information to the public. Many individuals will experience isolation during hospitalization or when quarantining at home (Pappot N, Taarnhøj GA, Pappot H. 2020). Social media can be an efficient source of information and an effective means for staying abreast of the vast amount of medical knowledge (McGowan BS, Wasko M, Vartabedian BS, Miller RS, Freiherr DD, 2020).

The most severe pandemic of the 20th Century has been the 1918 influenza pandemic, caused by H1N1 virus, which affected one-third of the world’s population and resulted in 50 million deaths (Taubenberger JK, Morens DM, 2006). With no vaccine against the infection, efforts to control worldwide were very much limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions that included maintaining good personal hygiene, isolation, quarantine and avoiding public gatherings (Sheila Jackson Lee, 2018). One hundred years ago, when medical therapies and countermeasures for most of the medical conditions were significantly limited and also information exchange among public to facilitate any health intervention or awareness primarily employed person-to-person interaction, mail or rarely telephone.

Human coronaviruses were responsible for a considerable proportion of upper respiratory tract infections among children, first in the 1960s (Kahn J.S., Mcintosh K., 2005). It came to spotlight with the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003. Now, a century later to the influenza pandemic, coronavirus classified as the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) and named as SARS-CoV-2 has caused the pandemic, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), currently threatening millions of lives, globally. Giant social media platforms have subsumed many methods in order to share information with incredible speed, reach, and penetration. Health experts and scientists are using social media to directly engage with the public, to share accurate information and discuss awareness, safety measures and emerging research, and community leaders are using it to form networks of public volunteering, to help the vulnerable (Alejandro Le Garza, 2020). With more than 2.9 billion individuals accessing social media (Statista report for 2019) on mobile phones regularly, for long stretches of time, it could prove useful at a time when many of us are otherwise isolated from one another. They have become polluted with the inadvertent spread of misleading and false information – misinformation in the form of images, voice messages, text messages and videos. Individuals online, knowingly and unknowingly, spread information at an alarming rate, which could be dangerous or misleading. Information or misinformation on social media can influence public opinions and behaviours with intense consequences, positively or negatively manipulating the perspective of those who consume it.

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus. Most people infected with the COVID-19 virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness (WHO 2020).

Hundreds of posts spreading misinformation about Covid-19 are being left online, according to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH 2020). Some 649 posts were reported to Facebook and Twitter, including false cures, anti-vaccination propaganda and conspiracy theories around 5G. 90% remained visible online afterwards without any warnings attached, the report suggests. Facebook said the sample was "not representative".

A spokesperson for Facebook said; "We are taking aggressive steps to remove harmful misinformation from our platforms and have removed hundreds of thousands of these posts, including claims about false cures. "During March and April we placed warning labels on around 90 million pieces of content related to Covid-19 and these labels stopped people viewing the original content 95% of the time. "We will notify anyone who has liked, shared or commented on posts related to Covid-19 that we've since removed." Twitter said that it was prioritising the removal of Covid-19 content "when it has a call to action that could potentially cause harm".

"As we've said previously, we will not take enforcement action on every Tweet that contains incomplete or disputed information about Covid-19. Since introducing these new policies on March 18 and as we've doubled down on tech, our automated systems have challenged more than 4.3 million accounts which were targeting discussions around Covid-19 with spammy or manipulative behaviours." Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said the firms were "shirking their responsibilities". "Their systems for reporting misinformation and dealing with it are simply not fit for purpose." “Social media giants have claimed many times that they are taking Covid-related misinformation seriously, but this new research shows that even when they are handed the posts promoting misinformation, they fail to take action."

Rosanne Palmer-White (2020), director of youth action group Restless Development, which also took part in the survey, said young people were "doing their bit to stop the spread of misinformation" but social media firms were "letting them down".

Both Twitter and Facebook face questions from the UK's Digital Culture Media and Sport sub-committee on the way they are handling coronavirus misinformation.

MPs were not happy with an earlier session. They demanded more detailed answers and said more senior executives should attend the next meeting. For the study, ten volunteers from the UK, Ireland and Romania searched social media for misinformation from the end of April to the end of May. They found posts suggesting sufferers can get rid of coronavirus by drinking aspirin dissolved in hot water or by taking zinc and vitamin C and D supplements, Twitter was deemed the least responsive, with only 3% of the 179 posts acted upon. Facebook removed 10% of the 334 posts reported and flagged another 2% as false. Instagram, which Facebook owns, acted on 10% of the 135 complaints it was sent.

Both the social networks insist they have made efforts to bring fake news about the coronavirus under control. Twitter has begun labelling tweets that spread misinformation about Covid-19. Facebook has also removed some content, including from groups claiming the rollout of the 5G network was a cause of the spread of the virus.

1.2       Statement of the Research Problem

Dealing with fake news is a balancing act. On the one hand, fake news can be a serious problem as seen currently amid the COVID-19 pandemic where harmful misinformation about the virus has been spreading like wildfire. On the other hand, there’s the question of limiting the freedom of the social media and press and hampering its ability to play watchdog.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that fake news is not a serious problem.

Misinformation has caused much trouble during this time of crisis. For example, false news about the usage of bleach in protecting oneself from the COVID-19 virus has been spreading all over the internet, false news on 5g network and others. This is of course, untrue. The World Health Organisation (WHO 2020) even warned the general public against spraying, gargling or injecting bleach saying that the “substances can be poisonous” and “cause irritation and damage to your skin and eyes.”

Nigeria have even gone to the extent of using legislation to stop the spread of fake news. Singapore a new social media bill or misinformation law in 2018 which has been grabbing headlines as it empowers government officials to order corrections to be placed next to social media and online posts they deem false. A number of opposition figures and activists have already been ordered to place correction banners with the words "this post contains inaccurate information" next to their posts. Outraged human rights groups and organisations have claimed that the law is a violation of free speech.

Amid the current health crisis, more countries have joined Nigeria, Thailand in criminalising the spread of allegedly false information on the internet. It was reported that in Vietnam, a fine of US$426 - US$853 will be imposed on those who use social media to share false, untruthful, distorted or slanderous information. Whereas in the Philippines and Malaysia, many have been arrested for disseminating news deemed false about the virus on social media.

While media are growing more sophisticated in their use of social media, and are for instance, using a great variety of tools to source for news, some journalists are less positive about some of the ways social media affect their media activities, their engagement with their audience, their productivity and the quality of their work. Based on these contrasting views, the question this research seeks to answer is; how have media affected the curtailing spread of misinformation concerning coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria with regards to their journalistic duties?

1.3       Objectives of the Study

            The principal aim of this research is to find out the role of media in curtailing the spread of misinformation concerning coronavirus in Nigeria.

The specific objectives of this study are:

To examine the causes of misinformation on coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria.

To know the extent social media help misinformation on coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria

To investigate the sources of misinformation on coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria.

To recommend ways to control the misinformation on coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria.

1.4       Research Question

i.          what are the causes of misinformation on coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria?

ii.         To what extent has social media help misinformation on coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria?

iii.        What are the sources of misinformation on coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria?

iv.        What are ways to control the misinformation on coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria?

1.5       Research Hypothesis

Two hypotheses will be tested in this study. They are stated below.

Hypothesis One:

H0:       There is no significant causes of misinformation on coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria.

H1.       There is a significant causes of misinformation on coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria

Hypothesis Two:

H0:       Social media has not help misinformation on coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria

H1.       Social media has help misinformation on coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria

1.6       Significant of the study

This study will be of immeasurable importance to journalists, media organizations, news agencies, editors, lecturers and students in the field of journalism and mass communication as well as other researchers who would want to embark on same study as this. The study will help journalists to source useful information using social media networking tools as well as provide them with guide on how to write online stories. It will also help journalists to interact with their audience, identify their information needs and causes of misinformation. The study will also help journalists to have rarely embraced social media to do so in order to increase their productivity.

1.7       Scope of the Study

This study is focused on role of media in curtailing the spread of misinformation concerning coronavirus in Nigeria.

Since journalists share common characteristics and skills, data generated from this study and the result obtained thereof, can be applied to all journalists.

The work is limited to Nigeria because of time constraint and financial constraint.

  •     Operational  Definition of Terms
  • Media: - Media are used to deliver information or data. The term refers to components of the mass media communications industry, such as print media, publishing, the news media, photography, cinema, broadcasting (radio and television), and advertising.
  • Social media: the term social media refers to the internet-based social networking website developed to specifically help people share their views and stay in touch with their friend, relatives and well wishers.
  • Pandemic: - Pandemic refers to an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.

Coronavirus: - Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus. Most people infected with the COVID-19 virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness.

Misinformation:-Misinformation is false or inaccurate information. Examples of misinformation include false rumors, insults and pranks, while examples of more deliberate disinformation include malicious content such as hoaxes, spear phishing and computational propaganda.

Role:- A role is a set of connected behaviors, rights, obligations, beliefs, and norms as conceptualized by actors in a social situation. It is an expected or free or continuously changing behavior and may have a given individual social status or social position.

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