Pakistan's polio campaign the victim of digital lies

Misinformation and disinformation need to be fought back so that mainstream media do not become conduits of the information disorder like social media.

By Waqar Mustafa (Core Issue)

Published: Sun 28 Apr 2019, 10:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 29 Apr 2019, 12:03 AM

It was not a case of 'man bites dog' - an unusual, infrequent event. Nor was it a case of 'dog bites man' - an ordinary, everyday occurrence. Yet sections of the mainstream national and international media bought into rumours of adverse reactions to the oral polio vaccine in a region in Pakistan which were spread over community and mosque loudhailers, and via WhatsApp and other social media platforms, without verification.
A pandemonium ensued across the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province as terrified public and parents rushed their children to hospitals for checkup. Rioters set aflame the local health unit, smashing its windows and doors and holding polio workers hostage for some time, in Mashokhel town where the rumour seemingly stemmed from.
The fabrication was soon exposed after footage of a man began doing the rounds. At the hospital he is seen claiming that vaccines were causing children to faint - and then telling healthy children to 'drop off' for the cameras. In another video, the same person claims some of the children have died. Government officials tried to calm the people. But the fake news proliferating via social media in the absence of basic digital literacy among the people, and gaining credence through the mainstream national and international media has already done the damage.
The digital lie has set Pakistan's efforts for eradicating polio back in a big way: an 85 per cent rise in vaccine refusals across the province with 700,000 families refusing to administer drops to their children, up from 57,000 refusals during the anti-polio drive last month. Also as a consequence of the false information, the campaign had to be put off in different parts of the country after two policemen and a woman health worker were killed and several other workers were injured in the line of duty.
False information has always caused harm in societies. It's the speedy, rather speeding, spread of it and the resultant potential for violence that makes one shudder. According to the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), the recorded history of "disinformation wars" dates to ancient Rome. What is new today "is the speed with which disinformation is propelled via social media," said Julie Posetti and Alice Matthews who have written a guide on the fake news' history for the ICFJ. "The capacity for any propagandist to publish material that fraudulently misrepresents journalism, distorts the truth, or completely fabricates words and actions, is now unlimited." As has been the case in Pakistan, reliable news organisations have redistributed and amplified the propaganda by malicious actors and inadvertently influenced public debate.
A publication from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization provides powerful tools for the media to confront the disinformation crisis sweeping the world. It introduces readers to the concept of Media and Information Literacy (MIL) to understand news as a means to detect 'information disorder' in obvious and subliminal messages. The competencies regarding information cover human rights literacy (especially the right to freedom of expression as each person's right to seek, receive and impart information and opinion); news literacy (including literacy about journalistic standards and ethics); advertising literacy; computer literacy; understanding of the 'attention economy'; intercultural literacy; privacy literacy; MIL is increasingly an essential life skill - needed to know how one can navigate information fog and avoid concealed mines within the mist. The guide says that everyone who seeks to convince others has an incentive to distort, exaggerate or obfuscate the facts. It's for us as general public, and especially so as journalists, to equip ourselves with a fact-check shield to evaluate evidence shared orally or via social networks critically.
Misinformation and disinformation need to be fought back so that mainstream media do not become conduits of the information disorder like social media. ICFJ's Posetti suggests a doubling down on quality, independent reporting, based on verifiable information, shared in the public interest. "It also requires a commitment to tell stories about disinformation that help communities recognise and defend against it, as well as reinforce commitments to verification."
Instant journalism needs to sacrifice some of its speed at the altar of accuracy. Speed does thrill but it kills!
-Waqar Mustafa is a multimedia journalist and commentator based in Pakistan

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