In pandemics, as in wars, truth seems to be the first casualty. Although the world has been facing epidemics and pandemics for centuries, it has never had to deal with any of them amid the current tsunami of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories vis-à-vis COVID-19.The revolutionary integration of image, audio, video, and text in messages has enabled an abundance of communication in which it is often hard to discern what is true and what is lie. Oddly compelling but false or simplified reports are presented as facts, and reproduced and disseminated easily and unthinkingly across countries and continents. They are profoundly shaping people’s perspectives, challenging expectations, and confusing whole societies.
The alarming potency of this phenomenon has pushed the World Health Organization (WHO) to coin the term “infodemic” to refer to the excessive amount of misleading information about COVID-19. Not only is an infodemic very hard to mitigate; it also undermines all efforts to contain the actual virus pandemic.
Disease, fear, and misinformation have always been a powerful combination. Throughout the centuries people have attributed their suffering to everything from sorcery, the evil eye, the devil to spirits, the wrath of gods or divine punishment. While diseases kill innocent victims, misinformation targets the alleged culprits, leading to their isolation, expulsion, or even death.
Scapegoat theories concocted for political, economic, or social reasons have targeted Jews, Christians, Muslims, women, Black people, Asians, minorities, lepers, paupers, itinerants, foreigners and so many others. There has never been a shortage of disinformation and misinformation – the intentional and accidental spread of false information – by scheming authorities, groups, and individuals.
The aims of disinformation have remained the same; only the narratives are updated to reflect the specifics of the times. In his 2014 book An Epidemic of Rumors, Jon D. Lee writes that “narratives are recycled from one outbreak to the next, modified not in their themes but in the specific details necessary to link the narratives to current situations.”
The Dark Side of “Creativity”
Calamities and crises invariably cause tremendous pain and suffering, often accompanied by heavy material and financial damages. However, they are also seen by some as opportunities for creativity, inventiveness, and humour, which can help people through difficult times. The dark side of this are theories, jokes, or outright lies that fuel destructive ways of thinking.
Some of this creativity is used to make up stories, interpret facts, and doctor pictures to support certain narratives, driven by malicious intentions that can profit from crises, fear, and uncertainty, or inspired by misguided or sinister ideas of fun.
The “exponential leap in technology”, presumably to make the world a better place, has made the twisting of facts and invention of stories an easy undertaking with remarkable results and enormous impact. People may create fictional worlds of ideas that can supersede the facts on the ground or determine the interpretation of those facts.
In the early months of 2020, as the world became aware of COVID-19, people were bombarded with messages from both their personal networks – relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbours –and external sources of information – doctors, government officials, experts, celebrities. This was when information stopped being helpful and instead created a jungle you could easily get lost in.
Bahrain versus Misinformation
Most countries – except where leaders saw it as convenient for their own narrative – realised that a significant component of fighting the rampant disease was to counter the avalanche of misinformation that could undermine the chances to slow down its spread until a vaccine was found.
Bahrain, a small island of 765 square kilometres and the sixth most densely populated country in the world, was one of them. Here, the density of people and their very strong affinity for the internet and social media (99 percent internet penetration and 84 percent social media penetration), meant a high risk of viral as well as digital “contagion”.
The bulk of misinformation messages reached Bahrain through WhatsApp, the most commonly used messenger in the country. Some of them were tied to political or sectarian conflicts, which have been dominating the Middle East for a long time.
The most unsettling messages emerged on 26 February, two days after the first case of the coronavirus had been detected, a Bahraini citizen returning from Iran form a religious journey. WhatsApp messages criticised the Bahrainis who travelled to Iran, accusing them of importing the disease and putting Bahrain at risk. According to the police, 30 accounts carried messages with sectarian overtones.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa sought to defuse the growing tensions, which were fuelled by fear and misunderstanding. He called for the preservation of national unity and stressed that “COVID-19 does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, religion or social class.”
Nevertheless, some messages used racism in their attempts to deceive users or influence their behaviour. Among them was one that claimed COVID-19 cases had been detected at the Dragon City, a massive China-themed shopping complex, and that police had launched raids in the shops and stores selling accessories, home décor, and food.
In another case, social media circulated the claim that people with COVID-19 had escaped from quarantine centres and were roaming freely in the country. Another claim that several prisoners were infected was denied by the National Institution for Human Rights in a report drafted following a field visit.
One person was held by the police after he had posted allegations that COVID-19 was a big lie fabricated to steal people’s money. A well-known singer ended up in legal trouble after she spread fear-mongering messages on WhatsApp about how deliverymen bringing pizzas and food parcels to people’s homes had contracted the disease and were dangerous.
Finally, there were those fake news alleging the existence of “credible” or “secret” reports about the origin of the virus and ways to treat it.
A Country Pulls Together
Already in early February, Bahrain set up an ad-hoc multi-ministry taskforce to deal with the spread and fallout of COVID-19. Its strategy included a major media component. Alongside their practical efforts to keep the population safe from the virus, officials also strove to battle the threat of misinformation that took advantage of the local addiction to digital platforms.
The taskforce warned people against the erroneous or misleading claims of fame-seekers, conspiracy theorists, and pretentious know-it-alls and urged them to seek information from trusted sources only. It set up a hotline in seven languages to provide reliable information to the country’s 1.7 million inhabitants from more than 140 countries.
In regular press conferences, the taskforce provided updates on the situation, issued clarifications, and advocated a profound sense of responsibility, while reminding everyone of the negative effects of rumours and false allegations. It also launched the BeAware campaign, a multilingual awareness campaign which was linked in March to a contact-tracing app. The WHO praised Bahrain’s efforts, while some voices raised concerns about the intrusiveness of the app.
The established media shared this awareness of the dangers of misinformation. Bahrain’s daily newspapers, weekly and monthly magazines, radio and television stations all appreciated the gravity of the situation and remained committed to printing and broadcasting news and reports from trusted sources, including the government, police, and reputable experts.
Trading sensationalism for facts, reporters went to places such as isolation centres to talk to doctors for infectious and internal diseases and microbiologists personally. They provided scientific explanations that would help people understand the situation and avoid the traps of misinformation that sought to tap into their fears and uncertainties.
Religious leaders, who are important points of orientation for many in Bahrain, gave sermons where they equated the propagation of lies with the violation of religious teachings.
People were warned that the dissemination of false information would be deemed a disruption of social peace and punished with heavy fines or even imprisonment. Police acted promptly to expose lies publicly, such as the Dragon City rumour, and to reject them. While Bahrain’s press and internet freedom are a matter of recurring criticism by international NGOs, decisive action against misinformation prevented the country to get into a spiral of fear in this state of emergency.
In Bahrain, the BeAware campaign, clear messaging by state and private institutions, and stern warnings against abusers all contributed to weakening the power and impact of fake news and conspiracy theories, which usually thrive across the Middle East. Putting its trust in science and experts, Bahrain will hopefully continue to resist misinformation and disinformation in all their manifestations.