Tuesday May 30, 2023

Dangerous information

June 25, 2020

We live in an age when information surrounds us and at times overwhelms us. Information is obviously extremely beneficial to people everywhere but its misuse can be extremely dangerous.

The exposure by Edward Snowden of the manner in which the United States government and its controversial National Security Agency worked collecting private data and even private conversations from citizens was perhaps one of the first indicators of the extent to which governments are now able, and willing, to invade people's privacy and possibly use the information gathered against them.

Well-informed sources say the government also has the capacity to maintain surveillance on the activities of citizens through the social media they use. Major social media platforms around the world have, unfortunately, in most cases agreed to cooperate in this devious mission. Phone calls are not immune either from similar surveillance.

The problem is not a new one. And it is extremely dangerous. This is especially true in a time when bloggers and even those who have simply posted dissenting social media content have been picked up and, if they are fortunate, questioned for their ‘offences’. In other cases, they have ‘disappeared’ for longer periods.

The invasion of conversations by private citizens is essentially a violation of their basic rights. But in some cases, information is dangerous for other reasons. It is dangerous because it is untrue, because it is unverified and because social media largely allows it to be put across to millions within a few minutes. Even if it is removed afterwards on complaint, the damage has been done. Over social media, we have been told that hospitals, and it seems private hospitals in particular, are delivering an injection to perfectly healthy persons brought in which kills them and that these unfortunate individuals are then declared Covid-19 patients who died of the virus. The question of why a perfectly healthy individual would be brought to hospital in these times is of course not answered. One video that went viral concerned a 24-year-old man apparently killed in this fashion. In another, a staff nurse said she lost her job after telling people to flee the hospital before they were injected and killed.

The videos make no sense, nor do the stories told. But they are a part of the widening conspiracy theory network being built around Covid-19, and act to misinform people building the myth that the virus which has paralysed the world does not truly exist at all. Such information is extremely dangerous too.

With more and more people from every profession starting up YouTube channels of their own, we also have scores of doctors online both from within and outside Pakistan putting forward their own theories on Covid-19 and also other matters. Some of the information they give out is blatantly inaccurate and therefore potentially dangerous. Advising people to consume antibiotics is not a joke. The misuse and widespread self medication by antibiotics to treat viral illnesses has already brought us to a situation where drug resistant strains of tuberculosis and other diseases have sprung up, making these varieties of illnesses that were previously under check almost impossible to manage.

The vaccine for MDR TB is still largely unavailable in the country and as a result millions of people are at risk. We already have doctors prescribing antibiotics when a patient complains of a single sneeze. The awareness that antibiotics will not cure viruses is poorly understood. Hot black tea or ginger tea could offer a far better remedy along with throat drops as required. But these doctors put forward a variety of theories, in some cases advising potentially harmful medications such as senna makki, a plant which essentially acts as a laxative, has some immune properties but has been scientifically found to be of no benefit at all against Covid or indeed most other diseases. Other misinformation is also widespread and some of it, such as the suggestion that the virus is now beginning to disappear from our towns and cities, would simply make people complacent and less likely to take the precautions necessary to keep themselves and others safe.

Misinformation of this kind is not limited to Pakistan. Of course, President Trump and his fixation on hydroxychloroquine, essentially an anti-malarial, is a prime example of misinformation spread over the media and the internet. Naturally, people would like to believe their president. In this case, doing so may be fatal. Our own prime minister’s earlier suggestions that Covid-19 was nothing more than something resembling a mild flu was equally misleading. It simply made people take the pandemic less seriously.

It is difficult to understand conspiracy theories. It is easier to understand how information can be misused or distorted. We need to act against both to ensure our rights are safeguarded and our privacy remains protected, unlike the first victim of Covid-19 in the country who suddenly found his name and photographs all over social media. Such violations of privacy have to stop. We must respect the personal rights of citizens and also guard them against misinformation fed by persons who either lack knowledge or have their own vested interests.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.