Hours after it was announced on Sunday afternoon that The Bahamas has its first confirmed case of COVID-19, the fake news machine ratcheted up.
First came reports of the patient’s identity. The stories began spreading at a rapid pace on Facebook and WhatsApp. Photos of the alleged victim and her family were circulated, names were called, claims were made.
Some people began to question where the patient lives, where she works, where she frequents and what school her grandchildren attend.
Some accused the government of failing to be transparent by not providing this information. Others circulated what they claimed were the answers to those questions.
Misleading information continued to spread throughout the day.
A well-known media personality took to social media to dispel rumors that his mother is the patient in question.
By 10 p.m. on Sunday, a voice note was circulating that the patient had died — she has not.
Many Bahamians were hitting share, send and forward on their smartphones. Many probably did not stop to think whether the information was real or not.
In his national address on Sunday night, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis warned Bahamians not to be taken in by false information.
“Especially in times like these, reliable and accurate information is essential,” he said.
“Fake news and misinformation can be dangerous and do considerable harm.”
He added, “There is a large amount of fake news being created by people who want to scare you.
“Ignore them and stay informed via certified organizations and trusted and responsible news sources.
“When people forward you material and you do not know who created it and it has no author, that is likely fake news.
“Fake news will have you panicked with information that is false. Again, I ask, please ignore it and do not forward it.
“Tell your friends you do not want them forwarding fake news to you.
“Listen to public health advice from professionals. Get your news from reputable news services.
“Listen to the information the government and public health professions provide.”
It was no mistake that the nation’s leader sought to hammer this point home.
Many of us appear susceptible to any information we see online. Then, we seek to share this as many times as we can with as many people as we can.
This is a dangerous time to spread fake news.
Many Bahamians are already panicking over the coronavirus and the economic impact it will have on The Bahamas.
It can be seen in the long lines at the water depots, food stores and pharmacies.
While it is essential to be prepared for what comes next, there is no need to buy 15 cases of toilet paper, eight gallons of bleach and two boxes of hand sanitizer.
Our responses must be measured.
Now, more than ever, we must take a moment, pause and react carefully.
In the days ahead, the fake news machine will crank out new falsehoods to correct.
Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands has spent considerable time on Facebook debunking false stories.
He has done a commendable job at seeking to keep Bahamians informed with the facts, including sharing relevant information on the impact COVID-19 is having globally.
It is too bad he has to spend so much of his time dealing with fake news.
It is sad that there are idle hands and dark minds out there seeking to heighten the level of anxiety that already exists surrounding this deepening crisis.
Fake news likely will never stop, but individual action against it could slow its pace and promote a more responsible reaction from a people.
While it may seem trivial, it is important that such stories not be allowed to gain traction.
There are indeed some individuals who are simply seeking to whip up confusion, embarrass the government and attract attention.