Illustration by Michele Rosenthal for American Scientist | Post translated by Hija Kamran
Read the Urdu version of this story here.
The spread of Coronavirus has affected everyone around the world. Every conversation begins and ends with Corona. Where many countries are under lockdown, global economy is crashing, and the number of patients is increasing with each passing day, people in Pakistan are equally stressed about the situation.
The challenges are increasing for the federal and provincial governments in Pakistan due to the constantly rising number of patients in the hospitals. And given the stress that is coming with the global epidemic, people on the internet and offline are not only presenting various conspiracy theories about Coronavirus, but are also coming up with its cure.
Although scientists and researchers around the world are trying to formulate a remedy for coronavirus, there hasn’t been much progress in this regard. But navigating the internet suggests that there are many ways to cure the deadly virus currently crashing the world over. Where someone suggests garlic, others recommend consuming onion as an effective remedy. And even though all of these suggestions are misinformed, a lot of people not only take them as true, but are also forwarding them to other people, essentially making this incorrect information viral.
Such false content is called ‘disinformation’, which is a critical issue on the internet. Governments around the world are trying to regulate disinformation through policies, but have not been successful in drafting a holistic regulation yet. And where authorities are trying, social media companies, on the other hand, are also constantly adapting their community standards and content moderation policies, but have not been completely successful in their approach. Hence, where the world is dealing with an epidemic, false information on the internet is becoming increasingly approachable for the masses.
We asked some people about the measures they are taking to deal with Coronavirus, where they get that information from, and whether they verified it from a credible source.
“I read it on the internet”
Waheed works at a local TV channel, and is very concerned about the virus. When we asked him what step is he taking to deal with it, he said that he’s eating healthy these days, and especially consuming meals rich in Vitamin C. When asked why he came up with this solution, he shared that a person’s immunity has to be very strong in order to fight Coronavirus, and he got this information from the internet.
He was asked if he verified this information, he responded in negative. According to him, it’s proven that Vitamin C is very effective against this virus. On the contrary, doctors suggest that this has not been proven by any research so far that Vitamin C is, in fact, effective to cure or prevent Coronavirus. And even if it is effective, the percentage would be very low. They also suggest that there’s no study that proves that supplements like Vitamin C and Zinc are not effective to fight against the virus. It requires more research.
“Warm weather will kill Coronavirus”
Iftikhar is a student and is not worried about Coronavirus. According to him, Pakistani media is picking up and sensationalising this issue for no reason, and adds that because the weather is going to be warm now, the virus will be killed on its own.
When we asked him why he thinks it’s true, he referred to Dr. Farhan Virk’s tweet and said, “a doctor with millions of followers said it, and he wouldn’t post anything without verifying.”
It worth highlighting that Dr. Farhan Virk is one of the founders of the social media wing of Pakistan’s ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and has millions of followers on Twitter.
However, according to World Health Organisation (WHO), there’s no evidence that suggests warm weather will kill the Coronavirus, and the most effective way to prevent this virus is to wash your hands frequently.
“A lot of people shared it”
Shiraz works as a support staff in an office, and conversing with him indicates that he has also become an expert in treating the deadly Coronavirus. He also suggested a lot of tips like using garlic and ginger can help cure the virus. He also recommends drinking lots of water, because this will cleanse the liver and the virus will not be able to remain in the body for long.
According to him, intake of lemon is also beneficial against Coronavirus. When asked where he got this information from, he shared that Facebook is his primary source of information, and he has adopted some of these tips himself as well. He was asked whether he has verified this information, he said, “A lot of people are sharing it, then it must be true.”
Everyone seems to have a cure for Coronavirus, and they are also sharing it with others as a gesture of goodwill without verifying it. Whereas, WHO and many other credible health organisations are debunking these theories and treatments, but the disinformation does not seem to stop any time soon. Where someone recommends ginger and garlic, others would suggest gargles with warm water to kill the virus. This kind of false information is on every social media platform, be it Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter or Instagram.
We asked Facebook about how they are dealing with this disinformation on their platforms during a pandemic. A Facebook spokesperson said, “In Pakistan, as well as many other countries, we are working with local health organisations to limit the spread of misinformation and harmful content about the virus and we are directing people to reliable information from leading health organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO).” They added, “Globally, we are also removing content with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading health organisations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them. We’re focusing on claims that are designed to discourage treatment or taking appropriate precautions. This includes claims related to false cures or prevention methods.”
However, they also added that the responsibility of fact checking every piece of information also lies with the user. They said, “We encourage all users to check the facts online before sharing messages that have been forwarded to them, and we encourage users to engage directly with trusted and official sources for important information.”
Now the question is that how do we prevent this disinformation? There’s only one effective way of dealing with this, and it is to critically analyse every piece of information you receive on the internet. Try to check and verify this content before forwarding it to others.
World Health Organisation (WHO) is actively sharing a lot of updates around Coronavirus, which is very useful in verifying credibility of information online. Where it’s unfortunate that in a state of panic, disinformation spreads very fast, so in instances where we have to fight against Coronavirus, we also have to fight false information.
Muhammad Arslan is a journalist and a team member of Media Matters for Democracy. He writes regularly on issues related to media freedom, regulation, and digital rights.