As Pakistan Fights COVID, Misinformation Presents Another Battle

by Meheer Commuri
Image: visuals / Unsplash

Both in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, India and Pakistan find themselves in opposite positions.

In India, people are lining up for far too few vaccines. In Pakistan, there are far too few lines. Although the country “has secured 17 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine… [and] approved China’s Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines,” “49% of the population is reluctant to get vaccinated even if the vaccine is offered free of cost.” An onslaught of misinformation has caused a stall in the Pakistani government’s inoculation mission.

Just before the pandemic hit, large parts of the South Asian subcontinent were getting internet access for the very first time. This was because of companies like Jio working in India, and Jazz and Zong working in Pakistan. These companies were able to bring the price of internet connection significantly lower so that a whole new group of people were suddenly, and for the first time, able to afford internet access.

Across the world, internet traffic surged as people were left with little to do during the pandemic. South Asia, newly equipped with an internet connection, indulged as well. In Pakistan, for instance, there was “a 22.84% increase in desktop usage of Twitter” during the “initial period of the pandemic.”

“The world has seen the rise of COVID-related misinformation because of increased internet and social media usage, but Pakistan has been hit especially hard by this rise.”

The world has seen the rise of COVID-related misinformation because of increased internet and social media usage, but Pakistan has been hit especially hard by this rise. Pakistan is a country already with skepticism and religious fanaticism embedded into significant parts of the culture and society. This made the conditions very ripe for misinformation to thrive. Furthermore, Pakistan is a country where many pockets of the population respect the authority of local religious leaders over that of the Government. Because of this, the misinformation battle is all that much harder to fight from the Government-side.

The misinformation proliferating in Pakistan ranges from claims that the vaccine is a Western (or Indian) attempt to subdue Pakistani citizens, to the idea that the vaccine is haram (forbidden for Muslims), because it contains pig gelatin. Both of these assertions are false.

Pakistani Government announced on June 22 that it was collaborating with Facebook to ‘fight COVID-19 misinformation.‘”

As Pakistan continues to be engulfed by this crisis, the Government realized that it was all too much to handle alone. The Pakistani Government announced on June 22 that it was collaborating with Facebook to “fight COVID-19 misinformation.”

The partnership essentially does two things. First, it works to crackdown on the COVID-related misinformation spreading on Facebook. Second, it directs Pakistani users to official Government pages and posts. As of right now, the partnership seems to be bringing in positive results. This should come as no surprise, because such a large portion of the population uses Facebook and the Facebook-owned WhatsApp. Dr. Faisal Sultan, Health Affairs Adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan, said, “We reached 76 per cent of our target population through social media messaging campaigns.”

Image: Timothy Hales Bennett / Unsplash

However, reaching a target population is merely the first step. One must look at inoculation rates before judging whether or not this project is successful. As of now, it is too early to say. Though the partnership is probably not a first of any kind, other third world countries are, without a doubt, watching it closely. If everything continues smoothly, perhaps more countries will come to Facebook for help with similar issues.

For what it is worth, it is quite telling of today’s age that Pakistan asked Facebook, a social media company, for help in controlling and promoting information, instead of the United Nations or World Health Organization. In times like these, it is becoming increasingly clear as to who holds the real power.

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