Combatting the COVID19 Disinfodemic: A situation analysis for Pakistan
Starting December 2019, humankind has witnessed the spread of two deadly viruses. The first one being Covid-19 – a pandemic that has claimed over 1.25 million deaths till now. The second one was a disinfodemic. The damage that the disinfodemic has done is yet to be determined in terms of its scale (many researches are underway), but it has proved no less dangerous than the novel coronavirus.
In this report, we are analyzing Pakistan’s response to Covid-19 related fake news and what can be done to contain the spread of this era of disinfodemic in the wake of the second wave.
What is Disinfodemic? The term “Disinfodemic” is a combination of two words “disinformation” and “pandemic.” UNESCO coined this term to refer to the wide spread of false information related to the coronavirus. This is a global issue and there is hardly any region of the world that has not been hit by a misinformation or disinformation campaigns around Covid-19.
The Outbreak of Disinfodemic
The first case of coronavirus in Pakistan was reported on February 26, 2020. But fake news about the virus was spreading way before that. In January 2020, forwarded messages started circulating on WhatsApp about people dying in China due to a “mysterious disease.” Soon after that, a few Facebook pages and Twitter profiles started posting video clips taken from a Hollywood movie and equated them with the situation in Wuhan. Pakistan’s mainstream media was rather careful in its reporting of coronavirus, but that had more to do with its hesitation to comment on anything controversial related to China than the fact that it was exercising any social responsibility.
While most of the initial WhatsApp posts had the usual "قدرتی آفت" (natural calamity) and "خدا کا عذاب " (divine affliction) narrative, there was a particular forwarded message that advised people not to order anything from AliExpress as the virus can stay on the delivery package for days. The Current ( a Pakistani digital only news outlet) tried to debunk this myth and advised their readers to not opt for faster delivery in order to reduce their chances of getting infected by the virus:
Misinformation and Government’s Response
Social media became the breeding ground of misinformation on coronavirus; with WhatsApp leading the way as the super spreader of this disinfodemic. Controversy theories were on the rise and many social media users were calling this virus a "یہودی سازش" (A Jewish conspiracy) or an aftermath of a 5G experiment. However, there was no sustained disinformation campaign in Pakistan as far as the origin of the virus is concerned. Zarrar Khurro (Twitter : @ZarrarKhuhro), a senior journalist at Dawn, is of the view that in Pakistan, Covid-19 related misinformation was rather harmless than many other countries. “Of course, the typical WhatsApp forwarded messages were there, but we did not see any sustained disinformation campaign here driven out of political agenda like the one we saw in the US.”
Zarrar Khurro is partially right! Most of the fake news around Covid-19 in Pakistan was not politically motivated. It was harmful nonetheless as the majority of social media users believed in such messages without verifying them. WhatsApp chats and Facebook groups were flooded with posts and videos advising people not to visit hospitals as doctors might inject them with poison and sell their dead bodies to Bill Gates/USA/WHO. In an interview for this piece, Dr. Arslan Khalid (@arslankhalid_m), who is Prime Minister’s focal person on digital media, said that this would have become a dangerous pattern if left unaddressed.
In order to prevent this kind of misinformation, the government took two major steps. In March, the government took all the major digital media portals and influencers on board for an awareness campaign around Covid-19. Digital content from the likes of Nashpati Prime and Bekaar Films gathered good views and sensitized the public about the pandemic:
Apart from this, a committee was formed by the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) in July to prepare a legal framework to counter the spread of false information about the pandemic. This committee worked under the Chairmanship of the Interior Minister retired Brig. Ijaz Shah, while representatives of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MOIB), Health department, the Inter Services Public Relations Pakistan (ISPR), and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) were part of the committee too. Dr. Khalid, who is also one of the members of the committee, said that they identified and removed many fake posts that termed Coronavirus as a hoax. He also pointed out that social media companies such as Facebook did not promptly respond to fake news complaints raised by the government and it was difficult for them to identify fake content that was shared in local languages.
The curious case of Corona remedies:
Perhaps the largest number of fake news in Pakistan was related to the cure of the virus. Ranging from immunity boosting drinks that can prevent the infection to home-made remedies that can cure corona positive patients; social media was filled with unverified and false information. According to Ramsha Jahangir (@ramshajahangir) - a journalist and researcher with a focus on technology and human rights - the key factor that led to the rapid spread of misinformation was the novel nature of the virus itself. “The corona crisis was unprecedented; it was new and unknown. There were no hard facts about Covid-19 and the situation was constantly changing. Even WHO had to change its policies a couple of times. Now, it has been eleven months and we still don’t have a definite cure to Covid-19, which is why everybody is coming up with different theories.”
As the number of Corona cases increased in Pakistan; desi remedies recommending the use of garlic, saltwater, onions, lemon juice, senna leaves (sana makki) and ginger have all featured in viral posts on social media. In a matter of a few days, several whatsapp forwards started making rounds suggesting remedies for the cure of coronavirus. Most of these remedies were falsely credited to WHO, UNESCO, US and UK based doctors.
A post went viral in which UK based Dr. Nazir Ahmed, a non MBBS doctor dealing in herbal medicine, claimed that he had cured over 150 Covid-19 patients with tea made out of sana makki. This misinformation was soon debunked but not before the demand of sanna makki reached an all-time high in the country. Some of the government officials also shared such posts on their social media accounts and gave way to corona related rumors.
If we put aside the misinformation that was spread via social media, the government’s core messaging around corona was also problematic to some extent. We can see that eleven months into the pandemic and we as a nation have not been able to adopt mask-wearing and social distancing practices at a mass level. Dr. Arslan Khalid defends the government “I believe that everybody became a medical expert during the corona crisis. This trend was not limited to social media only; mainstream media also added to the misinformation. The way Plasma therapy was hyped by our media, even though its effectiveness is still unproven, that could have been avoided. It’s not just the government, media and civil society should also sensitize the public.”
Fact-checking efforts around Covid-19:
The cure for Covid-19 pandemic is yet to be found but effective and timely fact-checking can surely cure the disinfodemic. In the wake of the corona crisis, many international organizations have launched fact-checking initiatives that aim to debunk the myths and provide sound scientific guidance. In Pakistan, we can identify few such initiatives, but their reach and effectiveness is still to be determined. The government of Pakistan, for example, has added a section on its Corona portal titled Myths about Covid-19. It has also introduced Chatbots on Messenger and WhatsApp and a Fake News counter on the Press Information Department (PID) website. Around 200 influencers have been taken on board by the Prime Minister Office to keep the public well-informed (#ehtiyatcorona Urdu for ‘be careful about corona’).
Apart from this, we have a few independent fact-checking organizations such as Soch Fact-Check, Sachee Khabar, and Surkhi who are working to debunk myths around coronavirus. According to Ramsha Jahangir, there are no dedicated fact-checkers in the mainstream media, but a few organizations such as Dawn and Express Tribune have some fact-checking mechanisms in place.
Fact-checking is being done in Pakistan at some level, but these initiatives have limitations in terms of reach and effectiveness. Misinformation spreads at a rapid speed; and these portals don’t have the capacity to counter false news with the same strength and magnitude. Much more needs to be done now to enhance Pakistan’s response to this disinfodemic.
Using Digital Literacy to fight Fake News:
Now that the country is going through the second wave of Covid-19, there is a dire need to launch Digital Literacy programs and equip the citizens to identify and counter fake news. Zarrar Khurro argues that “Fact-checking has now become a life skill. Everyone should learn to do a basic Google search and reverse image search before forwarding any Covid-related remedy.” It might be easier said than done but there cannot be a better weapon to fight disinformation than to equip the public with fact-checking skills. The consumers of fake news need to be apprised of this disinfodemic and how to counter it. To achieve this goal, a collaboration is required between all the key stakeholders; the government, media, and civil society. Media and Information Literacy (MIL) programs should be designed to address Covid-19 disinformation. Educational institutes could step up to impart fact-checking skills among students. Local body officials can also play an important role by engaging people in their constituencies.
The existing fact-checking infrastructure also needs an overhaul. There must be dedicated fact-checkers in the newsrooms across the country. At the same time, the capacity of independent fact-checking organizations should be increased. Government should actively work with social media companies to identify and debunk any false information related to coronavirus. While doing so, it must keep its personal vendetta aside and should not target the voices through dissent. Our experts have a few more suggestions to curb the disinfodemic:
Journalists should exercise caution while reporting corona related information. Always attribute the information to credible sources only. Government should facilitate independent fact-checkers to debunk Covid related misinformation. Information shared in local languages must be closely monitored for fact-checking. Education and Health ministries should collaborate with educational institutions to create Media and Information Literacy (MIL) programs focused on Covid-19. Training programs for teachers, students and parents should be organized.
Mainstream media has a wider reach than that of independent fact-checkers. The media must step up now and hire fact-checkers in their newsrooms. Debunked and fact-checked content must be translated in Urdu and local languages. We need to create digital literacy programs that do away with the jargons and go down to basics. A common person doesn’t understand the difference between misinformation and disinformation. S/he doesn’t know how to report Fake News on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. These skills should be taught to people in the language that they understand.
Journalism degree programs throughout the country should introduce mandatory courses on fact-checking and source verification. Local media organizations should take advantage of the resources offered by International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and First Draft. Links: https://www.poynter.org/ifcn/ & https://firstdraftnews.org/ Digital media portals that have a good number of followers should exercise some responsibility before publishing viral stories. They should publish only verified information and should regularly debunk myths around coronavirus.
Media should regularly debunk the myths around coronavirus. It seems we have to live with this crisis for more time now, so awareness campaigns on the mainstream media should not be stopped. We need to tweak the communication strategy in the wake of the second wave. Core messaging can remain the same but we need to expand our delivery channels and address misinformation proactively. Our health communication strategy needs to be revised in order to prepare a ground for Covid-19 vaccination, if and when it becomes available.
Originally Published on Digital Rights Foundation Blog in 2019