Africans are concerned about ills of social media but oppose government restrictions


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When it comes to fighting COVID-19 in Africa, the internet and social media have been a double-edged sword. Governments and public health officials have used Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media to reach large numbers of people, quickly and efficiently, with information on how to stay healthy and limit the virus’s spread. And digital networks have allowed people to stay in touch, and some businesses to operate, in the face of lockdowns and social-distancing guidelines.

Yet these technologies have also facilitated the spread of misinformation. Messages disseminated on WhatsApp claimed that people could self-test by holding their breath for more than 10 seconds, that “African blood and black skin prevent COVID-19” and that inhaling steam or drinking alcohol could kill the virus.

Misinformation can be dangerous, as evidenced by hydroxychloroquine poisonings in Nigeria. And in the longer term, it undermines public confidence in guidelines and treatment information supported by robust scientific evidence. Misinformation, in other words, poisons the well.

Concerns extend beyond the COVID-19 crisis. In Africa, where messaging was often centralised and speech freedoms were limited in the first decades after independence, the internet and social media provide individuals and organisations with new opportunities to share points of view and information that holds governments to account. On the other hand, they have been widely abused as political weapons.

One study found that political misinformation is pervasive in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. Foreign actors, including some from Russia, have been increasingly involved in attempts to influence African politics using disinformation in social media.

What do Africans think of the promises and perils of the digital age? Preliminary data from Afrobarometer, which is a non-partisan research institution, suggest that many have mixed feelings.

They see the value of social media and use it extensively. They are also wary of its negative effects, but don’t want curbs put in place.

It’s important to recognise that digital media remain beyond many Africans’ reach. According to newly available data from the eighth round of the survey, in 2019, nearly half (48%) of Africans used radio daily for their news, while about a third (35%) used television. Only 19% and 22%, respectively, used the internet or social media that frequently.

And there is a pronounced digital divide. Younger, better-educated, wealthier, male and urban-dwelling Africans are much more likely to access social media and the internet.

Nevertheless, the use of digital sources is increasing across eight countries for which both Round 7 (2016-18) and Round 8 (2019) survey data is available.

Daily use of the internet is up five percentage points, while daily use of social media is up seven. Most countries saw substantial increases; in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, everyday use of digital media roughly tripled during this brief period. One of the exceptions is Uganda, where a “social media tax” launched in July 2019 may have served as a barrier to digital access.

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The Insider

The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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