A recent report on Google trends in Africa underscores the inconsistencies in what the public knows about Covid-19 and how tech platforms can be used to spread fallacies about the virus.

In a region where a deluge of disinformation has spread through social media platforms, search trends can provide public health authorities with insight into gaps in public knowledge. The report from Think Global Health, a Council on Foreign Relations initiative, looked at 3,000 search questions from 21 African countries, including Egypt, South Africa and Uganda, to find out what Africans are asking most frequently about Covid-19.  

The queries predictably range from questions on the virus’ origin to clarification of symptoms. But others like, “Are coronavirus tests free?” indicate that there is confusion in some African countries about whether people themselves or the government will pay for testing and treatment. 

While many questions are answered on public health websites like the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 specific pages, the authors of the report say it’s not always obvious that Africans know where to look for answers. According to their findings: “There is plenty of need for local, trusted websites to offer ways for the public to access accurate health information.”

Nigeria Health Watch, a health communication and advocacy organization based in Abuja is one such example. Vivianne Ihekweazu, the organization’s managing director, attacks disinformation through weekly fact-checks, partnerships with myth-debunking databases, and radio shows to ensure that Nigerians have access to accurate information about health issues.  

“One thing that’s really surprised me with this outbreak is there is no assumption that just because people are educated or illiterate, that they will not fall prey to misinformation,” Ihekweazu said. “I’ve seen some things on social media that have really surprised me from people who I assume would know better.” 

One of the more puzzling online disinformation campaigns she saw linked the spread of Covid-19 to 5G networks and vaccinations. 

Ihekweazu says she’s seen a shift in disinformation trends: initially, a big rumor circulated that the virus only infected affluent foreigners, because the first case of Covid-19 in Nigeria was found in an Italian man who visited the country. Then, she saw a spike in home remedies such as garlic, ginger and hot water tonics. Now, she sees a lot of myths around alcohol and its relation to prevention. 

She points to the use of one app in particular as a popular spreader of disinformation in Nigeria. “WhatsApp is like a virus itself,” said Ihekweazu. “Most people in Nigeria can relate to an auntie or a mother who sends them these rumors.” 

WhatsApp has seen the largest increase across social media apps in usage for news consumption globally, according to a Digital News Report by Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford in May. In Nigeria, WhatsApp is the most popular chat platform — one report says at least 85% of Nigeria’s 24 million active social media users are on the app.

To access populations who aren’t as active on social media, Ihekweazu joins a weekly radio show, where she fields questions like “If I can’t breathe at night, is it Covid-19?” and “How do I know whether I have malaria or coronavirus?” 

For Nour Sharara, a global health consultant at Meedan, an international organization working to improve digital literacy, disinformation around symptoms and infection is more urgent to combat in order to bring case numbers down. “We have the rest of our lives to discuss if the virus was created in a lab in China,” said Sharara, who is from Senegal. 

She says household cures for self-medication tend to be the most common form of disinformation. While the use of hand sanitizer, for example, is widely encouraged for preventing the spread of Covid-19 and most people understand that the high alcohol content kills bacteria, Sharara says it’s common to see the conflation of alcohol consumption as a preventative method. 

“We tell them to use hand sanitizer, it’s not stupid to think that,” said Sharara. “‘Why does it help on my hand but not when I consume it?’ It’s not crazy.” 

Local fact-checking organizations have attempted to fill in the gaps during the pandemic. On July 4, Congolese independent fact-checking organization CongoCheck marshaled volunteers to sign up members of the public for SMS fact-check alerts. The disinformation foot soldiers doubled their subscribers in one day. The organization dispels not only health inaccuracies but also Covid-19 money-making scams on Facebook and rumors circulating about foreigners who have returned to the country. 

The authors of Think Global Health’s report found that the focus of Google searches in Africa changed between March and May.  

Early on in the pandemic, search queries tended to ask general facts about the virus, but they have since shifted to more specific questions on transmission, symptoms, social distancing, the economic impact of the pandemic, and testing.

“The fact that people have been asking these questions means we have succeeded in engaging them, that people have been curious about it,” said Sharara. “But 100% there is still more to be done. There is still a lot of misinformation circulating.”

Illustrations by Sofiya Voznaya