Viewpoint by Katsuei Hirasawa *

TOKYO (IDN) – The world is now shaken by the terror of Islamic extremists and Japan is not unrelated to this terrorism.

Japan is an island nation that does not have a direct border with another country. We do not accept many immigrants as in Western countries and, therefore, we do not take enough counter-terrorism measures because of our peace of mind as a unified nation.

Some of us even regard large-scale terrorist attacks in many parts of the world as the opposite bank of the fire. In the past, the Asama-Sansō hostage-taking case and JAL plane hijacking by the Coalition Red Army occurred, which were theatrical crimes and were reported live on TV. Most Japanese people may have not recognised them as terrorism. SPANISH | GERMAN | HINDI | JAPANESE

- Photo: 2020

Africa Alliance Launched to Combat Misinformation on COVID-19

By Sean Buchanan

LONDON (IDN) – The World Health Organisation (WHO) has just launched a new alliance, the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA), to coordinate actions and pool resources in combating misinformation around COVID-19 pandemic and other health emergencies in Africa.

It brings together 13 international and regional organisations, together with fact-checking groups which have expertise in data and behavioural science, epidemiology, research, digital health and communications.

Speaking at the launch December 3, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said the Alliance has the unique reach, knowledge and skills to help halt the impact of dangerous misinformation. 

“In health emergencies, misinformation can kill and ensure diseases continue to spread. People need proven, science-based facts to make informed decisions about their health and wellbeing, and a glut of information – an infodemic – with misinformation in the mix makes it hard to know what is right and real”, she said.  

Digital platforms have been inundated with COVID-19-related information since the pandemic began in late 2019. Information about the virus has been shared and viewed over 270 billion times online and mentioned almost 40 million times on Twitter and web-based news sites in the 47 countries of the WHO African Region between February and November 2020, according to UN Global Pulse, the United Nations’ Secretary-General’s initiative on big data and artificial intelligence. 

A large proportion of this information is inaccurate and misleading and continues to be shared by social media users intentionally or unknowingly every day. The COVID-19 infodemic is amplified online through social media but health misinformation is also circulating offline.

While it is difficult to determine exactly how much misinformation is being circulated, WHO said fact-checking organisations in Africa report that they have debunked more than 1,000 misleading reports since the start of the pandemic. Some of the widely shared misinformation include conspiracies around unproven treatments, false cures and anti-vaccine messages.

AIRA is the first initiative of its kind, working to detect, disrupt and counter damaging misinformation on public health issues in Africa.

The Alliance will encourage proactive disclosure by data holders and support journalists and media outlets to effectively share lifesaving information based on scientific evidence and debunk disinformation on health issues.

It also aims to support individual African countries in developing tailored infodemic management strategies, including analysing trends and behaviours, recruiting specialists and refining systematic engagement strategies rooted in research and analytics.

This initiative puts into practice key recommendations on infodemic management that were developed by over 1300 experts from across disciplines in early 2020 under the auspices of WHO’s global Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN).

Alliance members include the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), UN Global Pulse and the Verified initiative, the UN’s campaign against pandemic misinformation globally. Participating and supporting bodies include Africa Check, Agence France-Presse Fact Check, the East African PesaCheck, the West African Dubawa and Meedan, a forum for cross-language conversation and media sharing in Arabic and English.

Commenting on the new Alliance, Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), said: “Africa can only beat the COVID-19 pandemic and other disease outbreaks by relying on trusted information that is based on insights scientists bring to the conversation. To fight misinformation and mischaracterisation, public health experts must work with the community and media consistently and continuously. This is the value that the AIRA partnership brings to the collective of responses in the continent.” 

Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications at the United Nations said: “Working together to tackle misinformation around the pandemic is critical, particularly as we move closer to the availability of viable vaccines. We know that misinformation can cause serious harm and undermine trust in medicine and science when it matters the most, ultimately hindering any public health efforts to end the pandemic that continues to needlessly claim so many lives across Africa. That is why the United Nations’ Verified initiative has joined the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance. Now we can put our hearts, minds and strengths together to help keep communities safe, healthy and equipped with life-saving information.”

Referring to the potential spin-off of the AIRA initiative for a wider range of emergencies, Mohamed M. Malick Fall, Regional Director for UNICEF in Eastern and Southern Africa, said: “There is immense value in strengthening COVID-19 prevention by mitigating and debunking rumours so that families are empowered to make informed decisions. At the same time, the strategies and tools developed through this joint initiative can also be applied to our ongoing interventions in other public health emergencies.”

“Misinformation, fake news or rumours undermine and weaken the national and global fight against COVID-19 and, threaten the rights of children”, said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “At a time when the perception of risks associated with COVID-19 and adherence to prevention measures are decreasing, collective and joint efforts are crucial to mitigate the effects of misinformation on the adoption of preventive behaviours and the uptake of services.”

For Nat Gyenes, Director of the Meedan Digital Health Lab, “close coordination among fact-checkers, public health institutions and other communications stakeholders is essential for addressing the unique misinformation challenges we face today, where informational ambiguity based on scant or conflicting evidence, or emerging scientific knowledge can exacerbate the spread of disease.”

Justin Arenstein, Chief Executive Officer of PesaCheck, warned: “Misinformation can kill. We are seeing increasing numbers of organised crime groups using misleading conspiracy theories and the resulting public fear to drive scams designed to steal banking details and other identity data. We’re also seeing infodemic claims being used by xenophobia campaigners and other hate speech protagonists. This alliance will help us debunk false claims far faster and get the message out far wider.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 07 December 2020]

Photo: Artist in the Central African Republic, CAR, painting on walls various tips on how to protect oneself from COVID-19. Credit: MINUSCA/Screenshot

IDN is flagship agency of the non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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