Background & context
An overwhelmingly Muslim population of Pakistan is prone to conspiracy theories that appeal to their inherent insecurities about religion and national security. Because of various socio-political factors outside of the ambit of this research, ordinary Pakistanis look at the world in a hostile competition to their country and their religion. The general tone of media and even the state-authored textbooks paint a picture of victimhood of the world, especially the West, as enemies out to eliminate Pakistan and Islam. Science is often put in direct competition with Islam.
In May 2011, when the US killed Osama Bin Laden on Pakistan’s soil, reportedly with the help of a polio vaccination camp, the hatred of and opposition to the vaccines increased manifold. Although there existed anti-vaccine propaganda even before that, polio vaccination was rejected by religious people and was actively fought against by Islamic extremists and terrorists.
Against the above-mentioned backdrop, when COVID-19 arrived, followed by the vaccine and government’s hysteria to get people vaccinated, a host of conspiracy theories emerged and quickly spread across the country. Social media alone was not responsible for the spread though. Word of mouth, the bazar gossip, Urdu language print and broadcast media, all participated in trending the false, concocted, and frivolous information that contributed to people’s unflinching belief that Coronavirus was a mere conspiracy. Resultantly, there remained a general reluctance to follow social distancing protocols and vaccination; rather, many times, it took the form of active and inimical opposition to every preventive measure.
According to a poll conducted by Ipsos, a global market research and public opinion specialist, the Pakistanis with no misconceptions about the spread, prevention, and treatment of coronavirus, were only 3% of the total population. Ipsos report revealed that a third of survey respondents believed in conspiracy theories related to the pandemic. The unfettered spread of such theories was further fostered because of the government’s lack of effort in combatting them. Rather, some politicians, government officials, and opinion makers contributed to these conspiracy theories. These factors and gaps in policy led to Pakistanis being affected by conspiracy theories about coronavirus, in turn leading to preventable infections and deaths.
The Conspiracy Theories
There was a wide range of conspiracy theories and fake news spread through social and traditional media in the form of misinformation. Although many of these theories were seen in many parts of the world, Pakistan has been a more receptive souk for such ideas due to its unique circumstances and culture, as explained in the previous Sections.
Some of these theories are as follows:
- Some conspiracy theories were identical to those that have haunted a national campaign to eradicate polio, which includes allegations that politicians are pocketing aid money. “First the government made money in the name of polio,” the NY Times quoted a citizen of a small town as saying, “and now they are selling coronavirus to earn dollars from western countries.”
- Politicians and clerics have sown doubts in people’s minds about the spread of Coronavirus and how it should have been dealt with by the people. For example:
- Then Prime Minister Imran Khan put more stock in fiction and religion than in science when in a televised address in March 2020, he said: “Ninety per cent of coronavirus cases are normal flu and could clear up without any treatment.”
- Faisal Raza Abidi, a former senator, claimed that Covid-19 was “a massacre ultimately aimed at Iran and Pakistan as they don’t accept Greater Israel”. He further claimed he could eliminate COVID-19 in twenty days without vaccines or medicines. The video clip got viral over social media and was quoted by Urdu language broadcast media widely.
Figure 1 | Image of the tweet with a video clip of Faisal Raza Abidi’s speech
- Tariq Jamil, a popular Islamic preacher, used a televised sermon that was attended by then Prime Minister Imran Khan to assert that the virus was God’s wrath over women dancing and dressing immodestly.
- In another video spread on social media, Kaukab Okarvi, a cleric, accused doctors of killing patients under the garb of Coronavirus infections.
- Many conspiracy theories were spread by some well-educated people, even doctors.
- Some including doctors suggested that senna leaves, a local herb, could treat the virus. As a result, people started using them in huge numbers without any significant results or any scientific evidence to support their effectiveness. Posts on social media platforms and WhatsApp messages proliferated after Nazir Ahmed, a herbal doctor based in the United Kingdom, claimed that he had cured over 150 Covid-19 patients with the tea specially prepared with the plant. The misinformation about the Senna leaves (Sana Makki in Urdu) kept doing rounds on social media, especially in WhatsApp groups, despite repeated rebuttals by the experts and scientists.
Figure 2 | Screen grab of the disabled video on the YouTube channel of Nazeer Ahmed (account closed now)
- Dr Atta-ur-Rehman, a highly decorated Pakistani scientist with distinction in organic Chemistry, former head of the Higher Education Commission, and currently the Chair of Prime Minister’s Task Force on Science & Technology, was found spinning a similar conspiracy theory as Abdullah Hussain Haroon discussed earlier. Dr Rehman, in a video message, said it was “absolutely possible that an existing virus was genetically modified to be used as a bioweapon.” He claimed that “there was evidence that one laboratory in the USA was working on its development, the virus got leaked during that process, after which the lab was shut down.” He said there was also “evidence that coronavirus did not start in Wuhan, China. Rather, the evidence suggests that a laboratory in the UK was also involved.”
- Abdullah Hussain Haroon, Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister, in what appears to be reading a lengthy WhatsApp message, shared his fantasy theories claiming that the coronavirus is not natural but created in a laboratory in collusion with Israel, UK and the United States to halt fast-emerging China.
Figure 3 | A screen grab of Abdullah Haroon’s video
- Prominent journalists and opinion makers, especially those who were religiously inclined, actively spread conspiracy theories. The role of the Urdu press in this regard was especially pronounced as far as sending mixed, and confusing messages is concerned. Consequently, the coronavirus was often presented as a “science versus Islam” or “East versus West’ issue in Pakistan. The media provided huge ground for people with religious motivations to believe in conspiracy theories.
- Another fanciful notion was that the coronavirus was part of China’s master plan for world dominance. Because Pakistan has long been China’s ally, the thinking went, it wouldn’t be affected.
- Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder and a philanthropist who has devoted a large chunk of his wealth to health issues, was accused of spreading the virus to make a fortune selling vaccines.
- Many people believed that the pandemic did not exist at all and was a ploy of the Western world to push Pakistanis away from religion. To many ordinary Pakistanis, Covid-19 was a conspiracy against Islam and the government was following a foreign agenda by imposing preventive protocols. This was the main reason behind the continuous refusal by the clerics to follow lockdown and social distancing protocols. In late March in 2020, Pakistani President Arif Alvi and provincial governors held a meeting with Sunni and Shia clerics to convince them to close mosques for congregational prayers across the country amid rapidly increasing COVID-19 cases in the country. The clerics unanimously rejected the request. “We can in no way close mosques … It is not possible in any circumstances in an Islamic country,” a cleric who attended the meeting was reported as saying.
Figure 4 | A video clip reported by a journalist through a tweet on 22 March 2020
- Rumours were also rife that through vaccine shots, Western countries wanted to insert a “surveillance microchip” in the bodies of people from the third world, especially Pakistan.
- Many Pakistanis joined the bandwagon of global conspiracy theorists when another rumour went viral in early days of pandemic in Pakistan that coronavirus was caused by 5G wireless technology. Many 5G towers were burnt at many places of the world, but it further pushed Pakistanis into a deep well of conspiracy theories.
Figure 5 | Screen grab of a tweet made on 29 May 2020 listing down some of the conspiracy theories mentioned in this Section
Conspiracy theories targeting covid-19 vaccination
Many conspiracy theories and rumours about the COVID-19 vaccine were floating around on social media. Many people stopped trusting the vaccine. Following are the main theories and concerns that were popular during the first year and a half of the pandemic in Pakistan:
- The mass vaccination drive could be an attempt by global powers to spy on the third world especially Pakistan.
- People were also concerned about the vaccine’s side effects. “Who knows what the vaccine can do to our bodies? It may even alter our DNA” said a man to DW news agency in March 2020. This piece of misinformation was quite popular and repeatedly echoed in 2020. Several reports suggested that people believe the vaccination drive was a population control tool. Dr Seemi Jamali, the Executive Director at Karachi’s Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, in one of her conversations with The Express Tribune columnist, confirmed that the reluctance of people was linked to the myth that the vaccine would cause infertility or change their genetic code as well.
- Just like in the USA where some Catholic clergymen insisted that Covid vaccine should be avoided because it may contain cell lines created from abortions; there were religious concerns about the vaccines in the entire Muslim world. In Pakistan, the rumours of covid vaccines containing pork gelatin travelled from abroad. Indian cleric Mahmood Madni, however, tried to convince Muslims not to pay heed to rumours, but he also echoed the popular demand that pharmaceutical companies must make the contents of their vaccines public so that the rumours could be laid to rest. The damage, although, had already been done, and the misinformation had reached nook and corner of Pakistan by way of social media (mainly TikTok, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook). When the vaccination drive started getting serious blow because of the “vaccine is haram” (forbidden in Islam) and “it contains pig gelatin and human fetus tissues” misinformation, Tahir Ashrafi, then Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Religious Harmony and Middle East, himself a cleric, had to come forward to allay the misconceptions about the vaccines.
- Some people were sceptical of the Sinopharm vaccine because it was made in China. Some didn’t want the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, as it was manufactured in India, German news agency Deutsche Welle reported. Pakistan’s geopolitical relations also played an important role in the people’s perception of vaccines. Pakistan is estranged from most of its neighbours, especially India. Although China has longstanding friendly relations with Pakistan, the cultural differences and general perception about substandard Chinese products played a major role in these disinformation campaigns. On the other hand, a strong anti-West sentiment in the society and many conspiracy theories doing rounds about how Covid-19 was a western conspiracy, a vaccine from US or UK was not a good idea then. Some people were reported by Reuters as suggesting that given the kind of ‘Westphobia’ in Pakistan, it might have been better to obtain a vaccine from Russia or China instead of the U.S. or UK.
Channels of misinformation:
- The main channel of misinformation about COVID vaccines was WhatsApp, which is used by 39% of the country’s population. Unsubstantiated claims about vaccines were also circulating on YouTube, TikTok, and Facebook.
- False and discredited studies based on dubious data kept doing rounds on the internet. Even educated people worldwide, especially in Pakistan, started believing in coronavirus and vaccine myths.
A Gallup Pakistan poll conducted in November 2020 showed that 37% of Pakistanis would not get a vaccine once one became available. As per the survey report, nearly 45% of those surveyed think that the virus was laboratory-made and spread around the world on purpose. As per results from the September 2020 survey, 46% of Pakistanis considered the virus a conspiracy, which improved from 55% in August 2020. According to another report published by Gallup Pakistan in March 2020, 49% of the population was reluctant to get vaccinated even if the vaccine is offered free of cost. Experts say that misinformation and religious beliefs are responsible for people’s mistrust of the vaccine.
The above-mentioned statistics point to the fact that the conspiracy theories about coronavirus and vaccines made many people take the pandemic lightly. Most people considered the covid deaths a western conspiracy against Islam and rejected preventive measures believing that coronavirus might be God’s wrath upon the sinful and that Muslims would remain unharmed because God would save them. Deutsche Welle reported in March 2020 that frontline health providers had complained that the misinformation on social media posed biggest challenge for them, which put many lives in danger due to lack of preventive measures.
Religious leaders/ clerics, conspiracy theorists among politicians,
government functionaries, professionals
The tweets, posts, WhatsApp messages, and Youtube videos by primary actors;
It was forwarded by anonymous and identifiable users.
The content carried misleading information and misrepresentation the scientific studies.
The targeted audience was the ordinary citizens
violation of preventive protocols putting lives in danger of coronavirus infections
right to healthy life
Social media influencers opinion makers, ordinary users of social media and messaging Apps
The content by primary actors doesn’t show vilification against any particular segment of society. Rather, the most pronounced factors appeared to be an absolute trust deficit of the western world, insecurity about religious identity, and sense of fragility about the national security.
Bilingual, but mostly in Urdu
Individual, non-state, religious leaders, media, political
Means of communication were unlawful (falsification of facts, misrepresentation)
Much of the content consisted of fake news and distortion of facts. Thus could not be protected under freedoms of expression & information.
Social media platforms (WhatsApp, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter)
Videos and statements were posted on social media platforms and messaging Apps (WhatsApp, Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter).
The content was deceptive with false claims.
WhatsApp messages and video statements were used to personalise the distribution. The boost was given to the disinformation campaign by clerics and political figures
No evidence of backend communication between the primary actors or prior coordination
Some of the content (fake studies) was manipulated and some was made up as a result of gossip mongering
The trends on social media platforms and messaging Apps were mostly organic, forwarded endlessly by the ordinary users. However, some degree of effort to propagate the content was seen from the religious quarters.
The content was aligned with misinformation
The Case has been identified as an incident of misinformation because there was little evidence of a coordinated and deliberate attempt to mislead the masses, although there was a certain degree of deceptive behaviour. The misinformation was exacerbated using the pulpit and social media, especially messaging Apps. The educated class, including some doctors and top-level scientists, became part of this campaign by blindly relying on conspiracy theories.
The campaign directly impacted the Covid-19 preventive measures and steps to counter the virus transmission.
At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Pakistan’s social media was rife with messages about COVID-19 being a western conspiracy targeted against China, Russia, and underdeveloped countries like Pakistan. The disinformation was mainly spread through TikTok videos and WhatsApp messages and was attributed to the West’s attempt to destroy the economies of these countries by the ‘lockdowns’ and shutting down of businesses on the pretext of preventing the spread of the virus. Some older screenshots and video clips of older films / TV shows went viral. The coronavirus was mentioned, suggesting that it was in the works in the West for several years and was not a novel virus. Many messages also negated the fact that hospitals were flooding with patients, and ventilator machines were no more available for new patients. On the contrary, the messages suggested that hospitals were deserted and that it was some grand conspiracy in which even the government was involved. This campaign prevented people from taking COVID-19 and preventive measures seriously.