About the Campaign

Disinformation, propaganda, and “Fake News” have always existed. But why should we worry about that at all?

What makes it different today is its rapid dissemination and global reach. The spread of false information is being deliberately weaponised by the enemies of freedom. It’s being used to degrade public trust in democratic and state institutions, the media and to intensify social division, resentment and fear.

The campaign FreedomFightsFake empowers citizens around the globe to think critically and “pre-bunk” disinformation!

How can we detect which claims are (deliberately) false?
In what ways can we counter the global phenomenon of disinformation?
What is the state of media freedom around the world and how can we strengthen it?

Join us as we search for answers to these questions among others and let’s work together against disinformation!

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Misinformation in Pakistan During COVID-19

In Pakistan disinformation has picked up over the recent years as a large segment of the population lacks digital literacy, making them vulnerable to various types of digital propaganda. Increase in access to digital tools such as WhatsApp has increased the exchange of misinformation. Individuals often share information without prior verification.

From the following WhatsApp/Twitter/Facebook posts one can deduce that Pakistan during the coronavirus pandemic is fighting two forces: a pandemic and an ‘infodemic’.

‘It is to inform all students of different universities that we have decided to stop all online classes and more importantly all examinations have been cancelled.’

‘Immediate Ban on Poultry’

‘Do not Eat Chicken!’

‘You should eat leaves of the senna plant or sana makki’ (patients ended up in hospital emergency rooms with severe diarrhoea because ‘sana makki’ is a strong laxative)

Origin and Causes

From ‘Just flu, drink water’ and ‘It is a conspiracy’ the narrative shifted very quickly to ‘It is Allah ka Azaab (God’s wrath) and we should be praying’ and then onwards to anger and blaming Government’s lockdown policies.

‘Why is Government banning mosques while markets are open? Does Corona not go to the vegetable markets?’

Poultry was also targeted. A case of a poultry getting infected by the coronavirus and consequently getting banned was doing the rounds on the social media. The news was identified as fake by fact-checker ‘Sachee Khabar’ (Urdu for ‘True or Factual News’) and this prevented unnecessary panic.

Prevention

Like everywhere else in the world the conspiracy theories of biochemical warfare spread rapidly while developing a local flavour. One WhatsApp message read:

‘We will not get Corona because we are a Muslim country and performing ablution five times a day helps . . .’

The messages then became very specific:

‘. . . corona germs get dislodged from the throat or nose when we do gargles.’

Washing hands was and is considered a sound strategy to combat viral infections but going into specifics of wudu without any scientific proof is stretching it thin.

Cures

It was ‘cure’ that was the biggest target of fake-news-spreaders. From drinking warm water to eating garlic or having garlic honey pastes to sooth dry throats—a typical desi remedy for cough—quite a few messages on WhatsApp and Facebook were flying around. The most dangerous one came via a YouTube video (now removed/flagged by YouTube). In this video Nazir Ahmed, herbal doctor based in the United Kingdom, claimed that he had cured over 150 COVID-19 patients with a tea prepared from a special plant.

‘So many coronavirus positive patients’ test results came negative after they took my herbal tea . . . I challenge the UK and the Pakistani governments that this will surely cure anyone suffering from the virus within a day,’

This video had more than 100,000 views.

As shared by an exasperated private hospital emergency ward doctor in the capital city Islamabad:

‘We had more diarrhoea patients admitted than COVID-19 patients in the beginning of the pandemic, thanks to fake news spreading like wildfire on social media. Why don’t people check first?’

Whether touting sana makki as a potential cure was a malicious trick or a well-intended ‘herbal remedy gone rouge with excessive usage’—we might not ever know.

Spreads and Impact

The impact of lockdown included less traffic, bluer skies and a whole lot of confusion. Bank employees became easy victims of the stigma attached to COVID-19 as banks were vulnerable and often hotspots of COVID-19. However, AFP fact-checked several false images and social media posts targeting various banks. In a way, coronavirus capitalized on the mistrust of handling banknotes. AFP fact-checked the news of various bank branches becoming a target of such posts with texts like:

‘Three staff members of ABC branch of bank tested positive for corona. Bank branch sealed’

Educational institutes were not immune to these kind of posts either:

‘It is to inform all students of different universities that we have decided to stop all online classes and more importantly all examinations have been cancelled.’

Where fact-checkers were not quick enough to respond, it was the organization or the universities themselves that leveraged their official communications channels and debunked such fake news.

The biggest impact that came about was the discussion on health infrastructure. Any type of news, both fake and authenticated, generated fear and mistrust but galvanized people to ask questions which they would not have asked at any other time.

Source: https://factcheck.afp.com/pakistani-bank-said-no-employees-had-tested-positive-covid-19-and-its-branches-remained-open

Conclusion

Fake news during the coronavirus pandemic brought in focus, the issue of tackling misinformation in the mainstream media. Here is an excerpt from the ‘Manual on Fake News during COVID-19’ written by Digital Rights Foundation which perfectly concludes this phenomenon in Pakistan:

“Post pandemic the rise of fake news on WhatsApp has been at an all-time high. Numerous false news through forwarding messages online have misguided citizens regarding the epidemic, and most individuals are unsure what to do. The government has launched a website titled www.covid.gov.pk to restrict the spread of fake news further online. The website gives updates on the number of cases in the country. Also, it has a ‘Myths about COVID-19’ section focusing on the various myths being circulated regarding the virus one of them being that the virus can be stopped by eating garlic and the virus is transmitted through mosquito bites. “

In conclusion, everyone took part in ensuring the freedom of information and its integrity is maintained: from Government institutions like National Institute of Health sharing updated information, to Twitter handles of various city administrators sharing details of ‘smart-lockdowns’ and contact-tracing efforts and debunking fake tweets.

Online fact-checker Sachee Khabar, a first in Pakistan, has been vigorously fighting disinformation on social media for more than a year particularly in Urdu language. Apart from @AFPFactChecker the confirming information being shared on social media is up to the affected organization may it be bank, hospital, educational institute or individuals.

As Ramsha Jahangir a data journalist wrote in an article in the Dawn: ‘Not sure? Don’t share’