A couple of weeks ago in Karachi, someone close to my family and I tested positive for Covid-19. He was scared. He wanted to be anywhere but in a hospital ward — not even a makeshift ward at Karachi’s Expo Centre. He seemed to believe that people were being forced into hospitals, deliberately being put on ventilators and killed.
He heard this through a Facebook page — an audio recording between a man who had lost his wife and a staff member from the deputy commissioner’s office in Karachi. It was an isolated incident, shared out of context and given a different spin. Chances were, this was not the first bit of misinformation he might have received from social media or over WhatsApp.
One of the first times I received a forwarded message that was based on misinformation regarding Covid-19 was through WhatsApp too. It was about the novel coronavirus being created at a biohazard military lab in the US to bring down China’s flourishing economy. I found myself sitting late into the night sifting through The Guardian and The New York Times articles that the message claimed were accurate.
The entire message, which also had some truth to it (like the fact that a military lab had shut down in the US in August 2019), was a conspiracy theory that was floating around online in China. It was endorsed by a member of the Chinese foreign office as well, but it was still just a conspiracy theory. Yet many, even outside of China, were convinced that the US was behind this breakout.
In another forwarded message on WhatsApp, I learned that French virologist and Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier had claimed that the SARS-CoV-2 strain of coronavirus was made in a laboratory in Wuhan, China. The war of words, to this day, continues between the two superpowers.
Information is being continuously updated in a pandemic but there is still a lot of confusion, with unverified claims thrown into the mix. So how can we sift the wheat from the chaff?
What made the spread of this and other rumours I received outrageous was their timing: In early March, panic and uncertainty had already begun to grip most of the world.
Pakistan had finally documented its first case on February 26, while life in New York was beginning to slow down. The state of California, where I am, had ordered everyone to stay at home. Italy warned us that we were catching up to the catastrophes that were unfolding within their borders. And it was true: In California, there were long lines at the grocery stores, as we prepared to stay in for an indefinite period of time. Organisations scrambled to protect the most vulnerable members of our society — the homeless and the old.
All anyone talked about was Covid-19 and information they had “heard”, with more information coming from family living in different time zones. Offices and businesses were shutting their doors. We were in a constant state of “Breaking News”: death tolls and number of infections were increasing, instructions on how to manage ourselves and others were constantly changing.
What we needed were facts and clear statements more than ever.
What we did not need were guesses and assumptions, baseless misinformation that shifted our focus from the urgent need of the hour.
More than two months later, Asad Shoaib — a digital strategist, researcher and academic from Bahria University in Islamabad — is still grappling with the same conspiracies.
He shares a story about a student of his who showed him a video on WhatsApp. The video seemed to be from the 1990s and showed scientists, based in China from what he could tell, deep in discussion and constantly using the word “coronavirus”. The student was convinced that this pandemic had been planned and the virus already existed.
Across the Atlantic, YouGov and The Economist conducted polls in March 2020 that found 13 percent of Americans believed the Covid-19 pandemic is a hoax and 49 percent believed that the epidemic might be man-made. Over the past few weeks, the US has seen a wave of protests claiming that “Covid-19 is a lie”. These people are also less likely to practise social distancing.
‘Fake news’ has existed on social media much before the coronavirus pandemic (and even before US President Donald Trump started using it as a term to discredit any and all criticism of his administration). In November last year, Shoaib had come up with a concept to start a campaign, called ‘Shut the Fake Up’, to debunk fake news in Pakistan and equip the youth in Islamabad and Rawalpindi to combat fake news. The initiative was part of the Institute of Strategic Dialogue that had called for proposals on innovative ideas for better dialogue. But because of the lack of resources and funding, their efforts slowed down.
Countering misinformation is a mammoth task. More recently, social media platforms have also stepped up to fight this war on misinformation, but have had little success. It seems that the same content continues to float around in different forms. There is no way for baseless information to not be published and shared.
Avaaz, a non-profit network of online activists, published a report highlighting Facebook’s inability to stop the spread of misinformation. Facebook, the largest social media platform, removed a false claim that you can protect yourself from the virus by drinking plenty of water and gargling with salt or vinegar. But according to Avaaz, the post had already been shared 31,000 times before the non-profit flagged it to Facebook. Even worse, 2,600 “clones” of the post remain on the social media site. In other words, the post was removed, but the misinformation still remains on Facebook.
“There is no tool as such, if you think about it,” says Shoaib. “You have to be critical enough to say ‘let me find out if this is accurate information’.”
Other efforts in Pakistan include Surkhi, a Lahore-based fact-checking platform, who seem to have become inactive in recent months; Soch Fact-Check and Sachee Khabar (an initiative by Media Matters for Democracy). But that’s what they do — fact-check if they have the resources to, but they cannot prevent the spread of misinformation on social media platforms.
WhatsApp, the messaging application run by Facebook, recently took its strictest measure yet, by limiting the number of times a message can be forwarded. It also uses advanced machine learning to identify and ban any accounts engaged in mass messaging.
‘Fake news’ has existed on social media much before the coronavirus pandemic (and even before US President Donald Trump started using it as a term to discredit any and all criticism of his administration).
“This is good news, considering that a lot of the fake news floating around on social media is borderless,” says journalist Ramsha Jahangir. She has been reporting on misinformation and says the same remedies for the coronavirus are being forwarded on WhatsApp in India as well. Australia-based researcher Natasha Kassam, in an article for The Interpreter, listed the same bits of misinformation that many of us have already tried to debunk or fallen for in Pakistan. Those were also sent to her via WhatsApp.
WhatsApp’s efforts to combat misinformation include teaming up with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to provide the latest information on Covid-19. All you have to do is say “hello” on their WhatsApp number and you’ll receive an immediate update with the latest figures and facts. They also partnered up with the National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination in Pakistan to create a Corona helpline, available in six local languages. The question is, how many people will make use of these services?
TikTok is another platform that can easily create a misunderstanding about the true nature of Covid-19. It can either downplay its severity or make it look far more dangerous than it has the potential of becoming. “There is no dialogue or commentary,” Jahangir points out. It’s just a script, such as a video of someone on the floor shivering. This can create unnecessary panic.
Old videos can also be shared with a coronavirus spin to it. A video, sent to me by a family member, showed passengers from an aeroplane being forced to get down on the floor. The passengers were coughing and being held at gunpoint by men covered in protective gear from head-to-toe. The spin was that a flight from Italy landed in Ethiopia and all the passengers were to be quarantined, but disobeyed orders. They were being shot at.
But thanks to platforms such as the Indian-based Alt News, it was discovered that the video was actually just a recording of a November 2019 anti-hijacking training exercise in Senegal. But someone changed the context by adding the word “coronavirus” and a message with it, making people share it irresponsibly and, as a result, creating more shock and panic.
In light of the pandemic, Facebook changed its look and added another feature to its app as well — a section on Covid-19, available in the language you use the app in. They added a news feature where the organisation is taking the latest figures and updates from official websites, and consolidating them in one space.
Misinformation is not just coming from average citizens. In addition to social media apps taking on the infodemic, news organisations are constantly debunking claims of those in power. In recent weeks, the American National Public Radio’s (NPR) Seattle chapter refused to air any of President Donald Trump’s press conferences because of the amount of unverified information he shares. Meanwhile, NowThis fact-checks every briefing by President Trump live on Facebook.
The world has seen versions of this before. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20 was an infodemic in its own right. The flu was first observed in Europe, the US and parts of Asia, before spreading in other parts of the worlds. But governments concealed the truth so soldiers would not lose morale during World War I. Spain — a neutral state in the war — had a free press and covered as widely as they could and this, in part, fuelled the assumption that the flu originated in Spain. Hence, the name the Spanish Flu.
Misinformation in newspapers in 1918 aided the spread of the virus, and today, the internet only makes that worse.
During the lockdown, many are turning to the 2011 film Contagion. In the Steven Soderbergh, film there is at least one source of misinformation (a freelance journalist with his own blog) spreading havoc and fake cures.
Whether the above is an example of art imitating life or life imitating art, one thing is clear: misinformation is, and has been, a very real part of pandemics. Additionally, since information is being updated on a daily basis, it can create a lot of confusion, with unverified information thrown into the mix.
We’ve been seeing examples of this lack of clarity for a couple of months now. At the beginning of this pandemic, we were told that only those exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19 should wear masks in order to prevent the spreading of germs through a cough or a sneeze. There was a lot of debate over who should and should not wear masks — with people passionately arguing both sides. But recently, wearing masks in public settings has become mandatory.
Misinformation also continues to cause further confusion as the situation changes and so do policies. In the initial days of the lockdowns in Pakistan and closure of the country’s airspace, many were stuck around the world, with no way to go back home and no clarity on the situation. Senior journalist Afia Salam is in Dallas, Texas, visiting her children. She has been figuring a way to get back home to Karachi since her original return flight on March 23 was cancelled.
“I have made it my business to keep myself updated,” she says. She turns to several credible sources and then cross-checks her news, relying on official accounts on social media platforms such as Twitter to get verified information.
Farhad Jalal, another Pakistani citizen stuck in the US, would also turn to official information, such as updates coming from the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority’s account on Twitter. He was recently able to fly back home. Both Jalal and Salam knew that they could not rely solely on one source of information. A useful insight in these times.
Centres for Disease Control and Prevention had published an updated report in 2019 about how to communicate during a crisis situation. The key takeaway: statements should be clear and simple.
But we live in confusing times. We cannot control who shares what. And fact-checking mechanisms are, clearly, no match for the speed at which misinformation spreads, especially online. But we can be part of controlling the spread by resisting the urge to forward unverified information to others. Experts around the world are working on providing answers to our questions. In the meanwhile, perhaps all we can do is wait and watch, and try to stay safe and well-informed.
Subuk Hasnain is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco and tweets @SubukHasnain
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 31st, 2020