KARACHI: “Know the facts and don’t make false assumptions,” a four-minute video titled Karo Na Awareness has generated over 57,000 views within a few hours on YouTube.

As Pakistan reported three deaths and over 470 cases on Friday, the video’s creator Bekaar Films is not the only profile to suddenly become the voice of public health on social media. With many people now working from home, online platforms have become up-to-the-second hubs of information (often coupled with medical misinformation) about the pandemic.

Amid viral falsehoods, a group of nearly 200 influencers in assistance with the Prime Minister Office is working to keep the public well-informed.

“Hi guys. From now I’ll be sharing the Corona Virus updates which are authentic and coming directly from Ministry of Health to me. I request you to please don’t share any fake news because it can cause panic. #ehtiyatcorona,” read a post by Laraib Mehtab, who has following of 18,000 people on Twitter.

Speaking to Dawn, Laraib clarified the team was working directly with the PM Office instead of the federal health ministry. “There is a lot of inauthentic information out there, including viral totkas like eating ice cream can cause corona.”

Amid viral falsehoods, some 200 influencers working to keep the public well-informed

In order to be part of the group, an influencer should have a following of over 10,000 followers on a social media platform (preferably Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok). Besides sharing updates, they produce creative content around a public campaign — such as one encouraging people to stay home labelled #GharParRohana.

Supported, not funded

“More than ever, there is a public hunger for credible information. To counter viral myths and fake news, we are utilising leading influencers who create content based on official advisories and updates from the government,” Muzamil Hasan, the network leader told Dawn.

The influencers part of the network said while the ‘volunteer’ initiative was supported by the PM Office, the project was unpaid.

“It is an initiative started and led by the influencers themselves. The PM Office is just helping them on official updates from the centre as well as provincial and rebutting false information,” Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Digital Media Arslan Khalid told Dawn.

“Tweet updates posted by media outlets and tickers are often taken out of context and create confusion or panic. The public needs to be explained things. That’s what we are doing. This is a work in progress,” shared Muzamil.

Muzamil, who has 86.9k followers on Instagram, started the Covid coverage while working with the PM’s Digital Pakistan team and reporting updates directly from the “war room” established at the Ministry of National Health Services Regulation and Coordination.

Last week, Tania Aidrus shared a picture of the command and control centre at the health ministry and shared the war room had been set up where technology volunteers could collaborate with Zafar Mirza and his team.

“The federal health ministry is actively helping the network disseminate official information,” Muzamil added.

Fact-check risks

According to Salman Parekh, a participating influencer — the group shares three types of content: official information (mostly regarding case numbers, and government announcements), public interest articles and material, and myth busters that is verified by the PM Office and other credible sources.

“The messaging has been limited to the admins to restrict flow of information in the [WhatsApp] group. People share their concerns with us privately to verify. If there is a medical question for instance, then we ask medical experts. No information is posted by admins without verification from relevant officials,” he told Dawn.

The influencers research major pet-peeves and concerns in the community and find verified information to convince the public on Covid precautions.

The idea of the group, he said, was to create public interest content that was culturally relevant.

“Our audience is local and so using our understanding we come up with content that addresses viral myths. For example, we have also created content based on vetted hadiths by religious experts to share with people who use religion to disregard all corona advisory,” said Salman.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2020