The issue is misinformation, news sources in the Middle East lack transparency, and the news content regarding covid-19 is fragile, which has led many Arabs to distrust the vaccine and spread misinformation regarding it.
There are many reasons why people spread false information. Sometimes it is to create chaos and unnecessary fuss, manipulation, or sometimes to gain some sort of attention. Since the pandemic began in 2020, the distribution of false statements and false news about the coronavirus and covid-19 have increased exponentially.
The Middle East was a spot of many concerns regarding the virus, where it came from and whether it was planned by other countries. Conspiracy theories were also constant, especially regarding the vaccine, claiming that it is a way for governments to control people or enhance tyranny in the region where Arab rulers and governments want to control people through this pandemic.
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter burst with posts on how covid-19 is a plan from the United States or China to control the world, which has made publics across the region question the pandemic.
Rumors and conspiracy theories have spread among people who lack knowledge and background about how vaccines work and about medicine in general. This is Randa Samih Abdu reporting from Tucson, Arizona, for the Daily Wildcat. And this podcast aims to open a discussion on the fragile news content, lack of transparency in the news media, as well as resources needed to fight misinformation regarding covid-19 vaccine in the Middle East.
To start with, let's discuss the issue of distrust and how the history of imperialistic interference in the region led to political corruption and neglect, which is causing much of the distrust that we are seeing today with Dr. Faten Ghosn, who holds the Melody S. Robidoux Foundation Fund Professorship at the School of Government Public Policy at the University of Arizona and specializes in conflict management and politics in the Middle East.
“Ever since the inception of the countries in the Middle East, the governments have failed their citizens time and time again. It wasn't too long ago when in the region they were the countries were placed under the French and British mandate by the League of Nations. And these governments were supposed to help the nations. Well, they, first of all, created the border, right? Which created the first set of problems. Second, they were supposed to create institutions and teach them how to govern. However, in their creation of institutions, what they did was create laws and institutions to prolong their stay initially. And so therefore, not until after World War Two did we start seeing these nations become independent. And as they did, their leaders lacked knowledge, experience and in some cases the will to figure out how to best govern their own population. So they would borrow policies that they saw that succeeded in the Soviet Union, the United States, without thinking how would that policy translate best into their own context and communities. So as a result, sometimes in good intentions, those policies failed. And in the failure, they just created more insecurities and problems for the citizens. And as a result, since they really lacked legitimacy, their response was either to throw money at some of the problems or repress, on the other hand. And so this is why we tend to see a, a lack of trust in the region.”
After establishing some background on the issue of distrust in the Middle East region, there are some factors, indeed, that play a big role in the spread of misinformation regarding both covid-19 and the vaccine.
Abbas Braham is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, who worked as a columnist in the Mauritanian media for over 10 years. He tells us just some factors that have shaped misinformation in the Middle East.
“People tap into what is written through various expectation, wishful attitude and anxiety, and that usually shape the reception of news and sometimes news are even produced in a way to be misleading for various political tactics and, and intentions. Partly, it's because of the anxious nature that the world leave us through these last few years, and that basically has disturbed ways of confidence in the reception of news and expectation of the audiences and so forth. And partly because the market, the news market is inundated, in fact, with all sorts of information that shape, in fact, attitudes and information that people have.”
Illiteracy and the lack of resources also play a role in the spread of misinformation in the region and affects Arab societies significantly, which is what Basheer Aldhorai, a freelance journalist and researcher in media and communication based in Tunisia states:
“Misinformation affect Arab societies, where you find a large percentage of poverty and illiteracy, so the access to information is limited despite we are in the age of the information access. They have no ability to be online, internet service is very bad and very expensive at the same time. This limited access helps to separate the fake news and make them to depend on the classic media, and you know some of the classic media outlets in the MENA It is like a propaganda. Some of this propaganda against anything comes from the West.”
Students and the younger generations have thoughts and perspectives towards the issue of misinformation on social media. One of the concerns is that social media works as an echo chamber for what the user actually believes. So when users go and find opinions, most of the opinions are usually held by the user themselves. That is what Ahmad Aladawi, sophomore student from Egypt who studies electrical and computer engineering says about social media.
“The thing about social media is it really shows you stuff that it thinks you want to see. So it probably has like if people believe the vaccine works, the people they're following on social media probably also believe it works. And so they won't get like sources of doubt. But on the other hand, if people are convinced that, you know, some sort of conspiracy is true, it's really easy to find sources on social media that agree with that and go into rabbit holes and go look, look up weird conspiracy theories and they can make you more convinced.”
Social media is a platform for people to share and express their opinions and thoughts. The issue here is the type of information that gets posted and shared without checking the accuracy of it. Some people tend to find it easy to share information on some platforms, such as the chatting app, WhatsApp.
Student Hasan Almaghaslah a senior Chemistry student with a minor in journalism at the University of Arizona sees the sharing of information firsthand.
“It was about the local social media, you know, or the social media with like family and friends. You see a lot of rumors going out there and everybody's saying, oh, my cousin took the vaccine and he got, you know, and he's dead now. Somebody that I know took it. And he said this happened to him and this happened to him. So, yeah, you see a lot of rumors, I think, in WhatsApp, a lot from family.”
Some social media influencers and celebrities shared their opinions regarding the covid-19 vaccine on their social media pages. The concern here is to what extent what celebrities are sharing is getting embedded into people's heads? Ibrahim Zaky, a sophomore at the University of Arizona studying biomedical engineering, sees this often while scrolling.
“I think it's true to some extent, like in Egypt, and also like something that shared also like across many countries in the world is that they, like celebrities in the country itself, make a huge impact on how people perceive like take in information, especially when they see someone who they like, really like, and they see him as taking something, getting the vaccine or doing something they see that as a new trend and also the same if they don't encourage doing something. So, yeah, I would say to some extent, a lot of people's opinions in Egypt are actually influenced by celebrities.”
Student Abdulshaheed Jawad, senior biology student at the University of Arizona, shares similar thoughts.
“The sources of those wrong piece of information I feel like they know how to convince people. They, they make connections with things that don't connect so they collect things from different, different pieces, information from here and there, and they make one big theory and then they give it to people and then it spreads pretty fast, because it makes a makes sense to people.”
Youssef Abdelkader, sophomore biomedical engineering at the University of Arizona, talks about his experience.
“Both my parents have already had COVID so they already know how like how dangerous it is but they're still like super scared to get the vaccine. Like every time I call them I tell them to go get it, but they're still scared there's like a stigma around that people are scared of the side effects because and also because of like the microchip stuff, which probably isn't true. But just people are just like what they tell me is just they want other people to take it first and then then they'll start taking it. Social media it's like you basically just create a bubble around yourself with people that you know and you know, share your opinions. So you basically just keep like you have the opinions that you agree with all around you. So it just reinforces your opinions whether they are right or wrong. So that's how social media like spreads information is like that just reinforces people's opinions that they already have.”
Could the reason why some celebrities share misinformation on social media be the fact that the region lacks enough independent media outlets that represents political news accurately? This is what Elsayed Issa from Egypt, Ph.D. student in Arabic linguistics at the University of Arizona questioned.
“Here is the question. OK, they are celebrities who are not specialized in science. And given the political situation or I don't know, the media is controlled by the, always by the regime. There are no free or independent media channels there, so somehow, I say that there is some kind of intersection between the tweets by those celebrities and the political atmosphere. Like is politics affecting like celebrities are they like, I don't know, pushed by some kind of political atmosphere or pushed by the regime to spread some kind of rumors? I don't know.”
“Also, I would like to say this in academia we need to be precise and meticulous. So they are they work in their field, OK? They are singers, actresses, actors or whatever football players. So I think they should somehow focus on their field. But there were a lot of people who just stayed for months in their labs to just find the vaccine for this pandemic.”
Thinking about the rise of misinformation in the Middle East region, especially during the pandemic, makes me ask what and where is the role of governments here? Clearly, there is a mislead and this is what Basheer Aldhorai highlights.
“I think most of the Arab governmental corporation has no, for example has no official pages or new media platforms and that's that doesn't help to access to the fact, if you want to check about anything sometimes you can’t find their information from the main source.”
“It's enough to mislead citizens through the absence of the information, one of the government's responsibility is to provide information, which is one of the basic human rights.”
New Content is also weak and needs more work and resources to be improved, according to Saoussen Ben-Cheikh, a content developer based in Tunisia who works for Inter News and Media Development Organization, there is a significant lack of information quality in the original content in the Arabic language, and this leads the public to rely heavily on translations and other second hand sources.
This information gap can largely be attributed to the lack of funding that journalism has in the region. She highlights that this is especially apparent as we are dealing with a topic as fragile as public health.
“Most of the content online is in English and there are not enough, for example content in Arabic and not enough good content. And there are lots of content is merely copy and paste from major like media outlet. In fact, if you look at it more closely, you will find like the amount of information produced in Arabic is very low.”
Governments in the Middle East should be more straightforward and clear about what is happening regarding the pandemic and the vaccine, which is what M.D. Mohammad Hudeeb who works at the Tucson Medical Center highlights.
“Part of unity is transparency. There are many ways to build trust between the government and the public, and they have to inform the public about the pandemic, the effects of the pandemic, the ways of transmission, the ways of prevention and the treatments that are available. And they have to talk to the public in there like layman language, avoiding medical, you know, language and simplify things to their understand because they are a key part of this pandemic and we need the help of everybody to face this pandemic. Preventive measures cannot happen if people are not educated how to do them. They should know who is at risk for severe covid-19 to help protect them the most.”
Thank you for listening. This has been misinformation regarding the covid-19 vaccine in the Middle East, a podcast that aims to highlight misinformation in the Middle East and solutions to handle this issue. I am Randa Samih Abdu, a student journalist. Thank you everyone involved in the making of this podcast, including all my sources and Daily Wildcat managing editor Pascal Albright and Professor Jeannine Relly and the Daily Wildcat online all the time at Daily Wildcat.com. More information can be found at ar.firstdraftnews.org. This has been misinformation regarding the covid-19 vaccine in the Middle East.
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