Wednesday Jun 23, 2021
The Government of Pakistan has collaborated with Facebook to fight misinformation related to COVID-19.
Taking to Twitter, the official account of the government announced that it has "successfully partnered with Facebook to fight COVID-19 misinformation."
The tweet added that for this purpose, the government has created videos and messages to boost greater vaccine confidence amongst the nation that had reached over 32 million people in Pakistan.
According to the National Command and Control Centre (NCOC), 3,566,547 from across the country have been fully vaccinated, while 7,267,000 have received only one dose of the vaccine. Meanwhile, 13,484,364 doses of the coronavirus vaccines have been administered so far.
A research report prepared by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), an international NGO, paints a bleak picture of what is happening in cyberspace with respect to vaccine disinformation.
According to the report, "anti-vaccine activists on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter reach more than 59 million followers, making these the largest and most important social media platforms for anti-vaxxers."
While the social media companies say they are working with authorities and are constantly removing misleading content, activists argue that the damage has already been done.
BBC's Disinformation and Social Media reporter Marianna Spring, who has investigated the impact of anti-vaccine content online, was quoted in a recent report as saying that young people are more active users of social media sites and as a consequence are more likely to be exposed to conspiracies and falsehoods online.
While the BBC specialist stressed the importance of campaigns to counter propaganda, she noted that they may struggle to undo the damage already done by emotive anti-vaccine propaganda to which younger social-media users have been hyper-exposed.
The implications of this for Pakistan — with its disproportionately large young population — are enormous.
Pakistani health and digital media experts are not sold on the government’s current strategy to deal with the problem.
Talking to Geo.tv, the Pakistan Medical Association's Secretary-General Dr Qasier Sajjad noted that disinformation on social media is “very dangerous” and urged the masses to “believe in science” rather than half-cooked conspiracies.
“Even educated people fall prey to propaganda on social media, which is hampering efforts to vaccinate people,” he cautioned.
The PMA official pointed out to Geo.tv that even healthcare workers were initially “reluctant” to get the vaccine due to widespread rumours and waited till a large number of people who were not doctors got the jab.
Sajjad insisted that the country “needs a comprehensive public awareness programme” to clear misconceptions, adding: “we need a bombardment of messages on media”.
“I think the government's strategy lacks steam. They are not making the effort they should have been making. The authorities need to engage artists, religious leaders, politicians, teachers and other public opinion leaders who command influence on the people.”
Asad Beyg, the founder of Media Matters for Democracy, echoed Sajjad’s concerns on the impact of misinformation on overall public attitudes.
"COVID-related disinformation is a global concern and Pakistan is specifically susceptible to it considering our literacy rate," he said.
According to Beyg, there is much room for improvement in the government's response to COVID-related misinformation, especially with regards to vaccines.
“I fear that the existing misinformation may already be fueling anti-vaccine narratives, and there isn't an equal amount of effort in the mainstream media to counter it."
When asked to comment, Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry defended the government's overall strategy and told this scribe that the government has been disseminating "timely, credible and scientifically correct information through all conventional and unconventional means of communications to sensitise the masses."
“A comprehensive communications strategy is being rolled out jointly by the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), ministries of health and information as well as the ISPR and the federating units, keeping in view the ongoing trends and phases of the vaccination drive,” he added.
He emphasised the need for a joint response from the country's political leadership, saying it is not only useful but absolutely critical to have national solidarity to tackle this serious crisis.
“The political leadership has to be seen as playing a preventive role against the pandemic," he urged.
On whether the government has approached social media companies in this regard, the minister said they are "partnering with everyone".
While the minister says they have been responsible in their messaging, it is important to note that in the initial days of the pandemic, some of the most damaging claims about COVID-19 came directly from the government functionaries, like "it is just a flu" or "drink hot water" to beat the virus.
Separately, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan rejected reports that the vaccination plan is not achieving the desired results.
“Broadly, we want to get nearly over 50 million, up to around 70 million persons vaccinated by end of the year. A focus area is to get the majority of the dense urban populations vaccinated as a priority within the above number,” he said.
Sultan stated that, so far, the campaign is going well (213,000 vaccines delivered per day a few days ago) but needs to be ramped up to over half a million a day.