Paris – The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has led to a global health crisis forcing governments all over the world to implement measures to help combat the spread of the disease. As world leaders work to protect their citizens by keeping them confined at home, some governments with authoritarian regimes are using the virus to further their political goals. With democracy hanging in the balance, manipulating the pandemic has ruptured any place for genuine information and left in its path a clutter of disinformation in a time where transparent policies and trustworthy sources are essential to protect public health.
The coronavirus to date (4 May, 2020), has infected over 3,600,000 people and killed over 251,000 globally.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has called the growing spread of COVID-19 misinformation an “infodemic.” Defining an infodemic as “an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not, that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
Long before coronavirus, authoritarian regimes have been using disinformation to exploit the space for democracy and gain control over their population. In this COVID-19 era, many governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been accused of promoting conspiracy theories, intensifying the ongoing hateful narrative between rival countries and interfering in elections. Furthermore, leaders have downplayed the true scale of the virus and its impact on public health and launched wide-scale disinformation campaigns for political and economic gain.
The European Commission spokesperson, Peter Stano reported some people in the MENA region attempting to misuse the crisis in order to incite Sunni-Shiite hostility online. Even Islamic State militants were using coronavirus-related hashtags to promote the group’s message.
Other operations have been set up to promote Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army. Backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, the campaign had begun customizing its message to incorporate coronavirus-related information and repeated the stance of an alliance led by these three countries whilst denouncing the governments of Iran, Turkey and Qatar.
The operation was soon detected by researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory, to which they alerted Twitter and Facebook and began dismantling 5,350 Twitter accounts, 164 Facebook pages and 76 Instagram accounts according to statements released by Twitter and Facebook. Twitter said in a statement, “the accounts were amplifying content praising Saudi leadership, and critical of Qatar, Iran and Turkish activity.” The content across Facebook and Twitter were linked to various media groups in Egypt.
With over 36 million tweets on the network’s account, the accounts took advantage of the outbreak that was commanding the news. Headlines included “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dispatched coronavirus-infected fighters to Libya against Haftar.” A video was taken down titling Qatar Airways as “the official carrier of coronavirus,” with other posts claiming that the outbreak had uncovered the barbarity of Turkey and Qatar and highlighted the humanity of Saudi Arabia.
Conspiracy theories around religion have been tormenting the Arab world with many believing the virus will not affect them due to their strong faith. Many believe that if people become infected, it is a punishment from God for lacking in religious values. Citizens in Lebanon and Iraq have also been encouraged to resist social distancing advice as the economic crisis intensifies.
Authoritarian governments like Egypt and Iran have been limiting transparency in an attempt to maintain control over its population and appear to be managing the virus effectively. Governments are manipulating the numbers of those infected and those who have died and yet, as the virus grows in severity, mass religious gatherings are still permitted.
In the early stages of the virus, Iran downplayed the severity of COVID-19 which potentially contributed to the rapid spread of the virus in the country. Iran’s parliamentary elections in late February went ahead despite the WHO’s announcement of a global pandemic. Scared of low voter turn-out, the government used the state-owned media to underplay the gravity of the situation and encourage people to leave their homes to vote.
As countries around the world sprint to create a vaccine for the disease, experts fear fake news about treatment are only aggravating the pandemic. Various Iraqi media outlets reported that Iraqi pharmaceutical company, Pioneer was on the brink of releasing a drug that could treat the virus.
One Iraqi television news channel featured this headline, “BREAKING: Iraqi pharmaceutical company Pioneer confirms it now has a treatment for the coronavirus.” The report added, “We are awaiting a statement from the ministry of health so that we can celebrate this news with all the infected patients in Iraq and beyond.” This report came soon after Pioneer’s press release on its Facebook page stating the company’s ongoing efforts to supply drugs to the public that had been thought to be moderately effective in the treatment of coronavirus. The statement did not claim that the pharmaceutical company had found a new treatment for the virus. Social media erupted with many celebrating the news, however the next morning, Pioneer released a video statement clarifying that the company did not discover a new treatment for the virus, instead it had focused on providing anti-malarial drugs to the Iraqi market after some global research suggested it could be effective in treating COVID-19. The company criticized the media for disseminating inaccurate information in a bid to be the first to reveal the ‘news.’
The MENA region is already faced with debilitating problems such as unemployment, poor education, poor health facilities and totalitarian regimes that manipulate how they are perceived by the public. People of this region are vulnerable to misinformation and are skeptical by the benevolence of their governments and leaders. Governments have an integral role in disseminating accurate information to the public rather than furthering political objectives during a global pandemic. The spreading of disinformation causes fear, panic and hate within societies and only puts public health in danger. Ignoring or downplaying the threat of COVID-19 is posing a genuine health risk to millions of people in a time where global cooperation is imperative.