Pakistan has taken a huge step to fight the rapidly spreading misinformation regarding COVID-19 in the online and offline world.
Recently, the Government of Pakistan announced its collaboration with Facebook to fight the misinformation related to COVID-19.
The official account of the government announced the news on its Twitter 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.
Center or Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), an international NGO conducted research that says, “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 a Pakistani news channel, 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.
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.”