FeaturedNationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 17

Fighting an infodemic

A global epidemic of misinformation about the coronavirus through social media platforms and other outlets prompted World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to warn, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” In Pakistan, the spread of false information and news has proved more dangerous than the pandemic itself. It has psychologically affected the people of the country.

The social media has never been credible but even the mainstream media is not playing its role in disseminating correct information in the country. Instead of creating awareness, they are spreading confusion, fear and panic. A leading anchor of the country claimed that thousands of people would be infected in few weeks and hospitals would run out of space. It was fake news. He should have avoided creating panic even if the information had been correct. He only aimed to malign the government and incite people against it. The opposition is also trying to gain political mileage from the situation.

In Pakistan, doctors and hakims are presenting dubious methods to people to treat the virus. They said onion and garlic juice is the best prevention or treatment for it. However, the Institute of Public Health Punjab warned there was no scientific evidence to establish the role of onion and garlic juices in the prevention or treatment. A social media post claimed that Punjab’s health and food authorities have determined mutton as the carrier of the deadly virus and recommended that it should be avoided. Later, the Punjab Food Authority issued a denial.

One “expert” appears on a channel and says facemasks can save the spread of the virus. Another says they are harmful for healthy people and only infected people should use them. Citing the “successful” experience of Chinese, some experts suggest steam should be inhaled through the nose and the throat. Others say it will kill beneficial bacteria in your body. Many religious leaders believe the virus was created to keep Muslims away from praying at mosques. Others say Muslims should not use sanitizer before prayers because it contains alcohol. Fake doctors and experts in their video and audio messages on the social media present unverified facts and treatments.

The unconfirmed reports and news stories about the coronavirus have triggered unrest among the people, particularly old people. Since the outbreak of the disease, so-called experts in almost every field of life have taken it upon themselves to share their “research and theories” to viewers and readers to “educate” them on various aspects of the pandemic. They consider themselves an authority on the subject and inform the people about the causes of the outbreak and how people could protect themselves from it. It is pity that ordinary people not only believe in the fabricated reports, but also forward them to others, spreading disinformation and creating confusion and panic among the public. Many people claim the government is following an anti-Islam agenda to close mosques and force them to abandon Islamic teachings and prayers.

The tsunami of misinformation reached such a level that the Sindh government had to seek help from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to trace those who are spreading “fake and unsubstantial news” through the social media about “thousands” of positive cases of the virus in Karachi, triggering panic and fear in the people. Earlier, a fake circular from the interior ministry made rounds on the social media announcing the closure of all government and private institutions as precautionary measure in the wake of the coronavirus. The notification was fake but it proved right in the end. People do not know what to believe and what not.

The same is the case in the whole world. Several Iraqi media outlets reported an Iraqi pharmaceutical company was close to releasing a drug that could treat the deadly virus. However, the company issued a recorded video statement the next morning to clarify that its initial statement had been misunderstood, highlighting that it never claimed to have found a treatment for the virus, nor had it even attempted to do so. Other countries, including Iran – which became the epicentre of the virus after China in February – also made similar claims. More than 210 people died in Iran from drinking toxic alcohol after claims circulated online that it could treat or ward off Covid-19, the official IRNA news agency reported. Dangerous fake cures include consuming volcanic ash and fighting infection with UV lamps or chlorine disinfectants, which can harm the body if used incorrectly.

Another remedy that “kills the coronavirus,” according to misleading social media posts, is drinking silver particles in liquid, known as colloidal silver. The side effects of taking colloidal silver can include a bluish-gray skin discoloration and poor absorption of some medicines including antibiotics. Cocaine and bleach-like solutions are also among risky fake cures touted online. As panic buying leaves supermarket shelves empty around the world, some Indian traders and farmers have had the opposite problem — people shunning their products due to false information. Dozens of Hindu activists in India hosted a cow urine-drinking party. Some members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party have claimed that cow urine and dung can prevent and cure Covid-19.

In Africa, rumours are rife that those with black skin cannot get the coronavirus. According to local Kenyan media reports, people received phone calls advising them to drink tea to avoid the coronavirus – and that if they didn’t they might die from the illness. An old graphic created by the US health authorities about facial hair and respirators has been used incorrectly to suggest men should shave off their beards to avoid catching the coronavirus.

Research by Oxford’s Reuters Institute looking at the spread of 225 false or misleading claims about the coronavirus found 88pc of the claims had appeared on social media platforms, compared with 9pc on television or 8pc in news outlets. Nearly 30pc of US adults believe Covid-19 was developed in a lab, according to a survey by Pew Research Center. A conspiracy theory falsely linking 5G to the coronavirus pandemic has led to real-world consequences, including threats and harassment against telecom engineers and petrol bomb attacks on telephone poles.

The situation demands people stop using the social media and watching news channels to save themselves from psychological harm.