The relationship between internet technology and critical information is largely beneficial. The public’s interest is quickly satisfied by words and pictures flowing instantly from the miracle of the digital age. News cycles, though, hate vacuums and the web tends to neutralize value.
When Patrick Sawyer stepped off an airplane and collapsed in July he became Nigeria’s first confirmed Ebola carrier. Nigerian media has followed closely the virus as it ravages nearby Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. News coverage – as in many countries – has focused on horrible scenes of an emergency seemingly out of control.
Potentially lifesaving medical information was hard to find in the early stages of the Ebola outbreak. Filling the vacuum was bad information. Reports of a miraculous saltwater cure circulated through websites and social media. Forced to debunk a plethora of false cure claims, Nigerian authorities and health workers went to the internet with a stream of information as well as explicit threats to arrest anybody spreading «false promises,» noted IRIN (October 1). The social media hoax was visible for about a week before the hashtag trend was reversed. Two people died from excessive salt intake.
There are now websites in Nigeria staffed by volunteer professionals offering timely and accurate information supplemented by telephone hotlines and public service announcements on radio and television. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) offered its free SMS application UReport to share accurate information.
«After providing the necessary human and technical infrastructure, information management is a key element in the fight against Ebola,» said internet policy specialist Tochuwu Akunyii. «Dissemination of accurate information is crucial. Social media plays a vital role in this process.»
While Nigerians are among the most digitally connected in the world, traditional media, from radio and posters to town criers, has been used to reach villages and towns outside the main media hubs.
Among countries hardest hit by the Ebola virus, government authorities have reacted to news reporting with strict controls. The Liberian Information Ministry «assumed responsibility for issuing press cards» from the Press Unions of Liberia. Health workers in Liberia are banned from interacting with reporters, noted press freedom advocate Reporters sans Frontiers (RSF) (October 8).
«Journalists are not allowed to enter Ebola treatment centers,» said a government spokesperson, quoted by AFP (October 10). «They violate people’s privacy, taking pictures to sell to international institutions. We’ve stopped everything.»
Liberian authorities arrested several journalists after reports emerged of money earmarked for Ebola aid being misappropriated. «Press freedom is one of the universal human rights that also remains valid in a crisis,» said RSF Germany spokesperson Christian Mihr to Deutsche Welle (October 13). «An independent press is also vital to report and inform about people about the epidemic.»
Soldiers of the Guinean army prevented lawyers and reporters from visiting a village where eight people, including three reporters, were killed in September during a health education mission. Equipment was seized. Video deleted.
Mobile telecom Orange in Guinea sends out blanket SMS messages to all customers each day reminding those infected to seek «prompt treatment.» Posters in the capital Conakry urge people who think they’re infected to phone the universal emergency number.
Health information services are often cited as key development targets for ICT (information and communication technologies) access. Topping the list is always e-commerce. Figures from the UN Broadband Conference annual report on the State of Broadband released in September show more than 50% internet access in 77 countries. Guinea and Sierra Leone are among the ten least internet connected countries in the world with less than 2% of their people having access. Eight of the ten countries with the lowest rates of internet access are in sub-Saharan Africa. In Liberia internet user penetration is 4.6% but 38% in Nigeria. Iceland has the highest percentage of internet users, 96.5% of the population.
«Broadband uptake is accelerating, but it is unacceptable that 90% of people in the world’s (UN designated) 48 least developed countries remain totally unconnected,» offered ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Touré in a statement. «With broadband Internet now universally recognized as a vital tool for social and economic development, we need to make connectively a key development priority, particularly in the world’s poorest nations. Connectivity is not a luxury for the rich – rather, it is the most powerful tool mankind has ever had at its disposal to bridge development gaps in areas like health, education, environmental management and gender empowerment.» (See ITU statement in full here)
Technology, of course, races forward. Services now available for health monitoring are truly astounding, smart-watch applications being the current rage. While North Americans and Europeans are benefiting from «the internet of things,» people in the least developed countries, Africans in particular, are still waiting to access the internet.
By year’s end 40.4% of the world’s population will have internet access and by 2017 more than 50% will be connected. «Global growth in internet usage is happening more quickly than previously anticipated,» said the Broadband Commission report. In the least developed nations of Africa ICT development is hampered by money; from high costs for basic access to the expense of start-up infrastructure.
«Mobile-broadband is growing very fast,» said the ITU’s Cosmas Zavazava to PCWorld (October 6). «Mobile broadband penetration in Africa will reach close to 20 percent by end of 2014, up from less than 2 percent four years earlier. All regions continue to show double-digit growth rates but Africa stands out with a growth rate of over 40 percent—twice as high as the global average.»
Opportunity from ICT development is undeniable. Equally, arguably more worrying, the trove of information available is easily misunderstood and mishandled. Authorities are rightly concerned about headlines that jump to conclusions or simply chase clicks. That never justifies jailing journalists or closing news web portals but speaks more to the need for optimizing the engagement between public officials and those who report the news.
«It’s important to keep these issues in front of the public. Hopefully this will lead to a broader response and interest,» said Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health professor Stephen Morse to the Columbia Journalism Review (October 7), who described Ebola outbreak coverage in the United States as «from the near-hysterical to…very balanced careful reporting.»