Following record monsoon rains and devastating floods in Pakistan, the surge in dengue cases has led to the spread of misinformation. Social media, for example, has been rife with misleading claims about the papaya leaf juice, which, many have come to believe, can cure dengue fever as it helps to increase declining platelet counts.
Najia Lakhani, 42, was diagnosed with dengue in September and consumed three to four tablespoons of papaya leaf juice on the same day. With a history of digestive issues already, she experienced a severe stomach ache and was admitted to the special care unit at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi two days later.
“Many other dengue patients admitted in my unit did not see an increase in their platelet count after consuming the papaya leaf juice for a week, but instead suffered from nose and stool (rectal) bleeding. I heard doctors advising against its use,” Lakhani told Digital Rights Monitor (DRM).
Dr Shobha Luxmi, an infectious diseases specialist and member of the Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases Society of Pakistan (MMIDSP), also said “there is no strong scientific evidence to suggest that papaya leaves can increase the platelet count in patients having dengue viral infections, but instead it can cause diarrhoea and dehydration”.
This is a classic example of how health or medical misinformation, primarily disseminated through social media via Whatsapp forwards, YouTube videos or Facebook posts without proper verification, is a threat to public health. A large segment of the population in Pakistan lacks digital literacy, making them vulnerable to various types of misinformation and disinformation online.
It was not until 2018, the year of general elections in Pakistan, that people in the country extensively started searching the term “fake news” on the internet, as noted by a 2020 Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) study on information disorders in the country. Around the same time, there was also an emergence of independent fact-checkers, online fact-checking accounts and organisations to debunk misleading information.
Debunking ‘Fake News’
In October 2018, Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting launched Fact Checker MoIB (@FactCheckerMoIB) on Twitter to “expose fake news” under the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s reign. The rebuttals posted by the account, which now has over 67,800 followers, have the text “fake news” juxtaposed on screenshots of news reports or tweets in bold red, without explaining why it deems the reports as fake.
A year later, Soch Fact Check was launched in January 2020. It became Pakistan’s first non-partisan organisation, dedicated to sorting fact from fiction, to acquire the International Fact-Checking Network’s (IFCN) Code of Principles certification. The IFCN’s code of principles is a series of commitments organisations abide by to promote excellence in fact-checking to ensure transparency, consistency and accountability.
On their website, Soch Fact Check has laid out their methodology and details about their team, which primarily consists of six fact-checkers led by a managing editor. They also have a corrections policy in place. The outlet publishes an average 40 fact-checks per month in English.
News outlets like The News, The Express Tribune, and SAMAA TV started publishing fact-checks on their websites in 2019. Traditionally fact-checking happens within the newsrooms in Pakistan. However, there is mostly an absence of a dedicated fact-checker or fact-checking desk.
“At SAMAA Digital, how we approach fact-checking is, for example, as we speak Imran Khan is addressing a public rally. With live speeches, we don’t get an immediate opportunity to fact-check but if we find something factually incorrect, we will revisit it within six hours and produce a story on it,” shared Gibran Ashraf, editor for digital at SAMAA TV.
Multiple accounts such as Sachee Khabar, FactCheckPakistan , Basic Fact Check, and Factopolis Pakistan also cropped up on Twitter in 2019 and 2020, claiming to be independent and non-partisan fact-checking projects or organisations tackling the misinformation and disinformation epidemic in Pakistan. Expose Propaganda is the latest to join this list in April 2022.
When asked to comment for this story, FactCheckPakistan, run by a group of journalists who have been in the media for several years, wished to remain anonymous because “that might distract [readers] from the initiative as some of us are quite well-known”.
A 2017 research on trust and distrust in online fact-checking services noted that “fact-checking services should strive to increase transparency in their processes, as well as in their organisations, and funding sources” to strengthen trust.
Ramsha Jahangir, a freelance journalist whose work focuses on internet rights, mis/disinformation, online regulation and censorship, and digital society, echoes the same sentiments.
“A lot of fact-checkers emerging in Pakistan are now saying they chose to remain anonymous, which I don’t think works in their favour because if they fact-check one type of political content then it makes it very tricky and shaky to trust them,” she told DRM via a Zoom call from Amsterdam.
“So I think making your methodology public, making your funding public, your intentions public is very important for that trust,” she added.
As for FactCheckPakistan, despite choosing to stay anonymous, gaining the trust of the public is not something they struggle with. “Fact checkers worldwide are not known by who runs them but what matters is the work they do and our work speaks for itself.
“We’ve gained almost 11,000 followers on Twitter in less than a year and that’s all organic. It’s a reflection we feel of the trust people have in us,” they told DRM via Twitter.
They added that they are not being funded by anyone at the moment but are open to grants from independent organisations which fund such work.
Limitations and challenges
Some of the limitations that emerging fact-checking organisations face are lack of funding, non-availability of trained fact-checkers, and limited reach due to the fact-checks being done mostly in English.
Areeba Fatima, a Lahore-based fact-checker currently in her last semester at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), helped Fact Focus set up a fact-checking platform and website called Basic Fact Check in 2021. She had previously done an internship with Soch Fact Check in its early days and rejoined the organisation in June 2022.
“The biggest challenge in my opinion is that a lot of folks are writing fact-checks but there are not many people reading it due to it being in English mostly. Non-English speakers might have been introduced to the terminology ‘fact-check’ but they do not use it as a critical thinking strategy to prevent themselves from encountering and accepting misinformation; instead they use it as a political tool to disenfranchise their political opponents and target people,” Fatima said.
Independent fact-checking organisations have not been able to amplify their content and reach a wider audience as they are producing fact-checks primarily in English. Soch Fact Check has over 1,000 followers on Twitter and created their Facebook and Instagram pages in April and May, respectively, earlier this year.
Additionally, Jahangir pointed out that “Meta [Facebook’s parent company] doesn’t have enough partners in Pakistan”. Soch Fact Check and AFP Fact Check, both IFCN signatories, are the only two organisations that are a part of Meta’s third-party fact-checking programme to debunk potentially misleading and false claims in Pakistan.
Independent and IFCN-certified fact-checkers identify, review and rate viral misinformation across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp through original reporting as part of the programme.
“Each time a fact-checker rates a piece of content as false on our platforms, we significantly reduce that content’s distribution so that fewer people see it, label it accordingly and notify people who try to share it,” Meta states on its website.
Emerging fact-checking initiatives
Geo Fact Check is the latest fact-checking service launched in August 2022 by Geo English to fight the spread of misinformation and disinformation online. Their team consists of two sub-editors, three researchers, video editor and investigative reporters associated with Jang and Geo who have been specifically assigned to Geo Fact Check. They are in the process of connecting with all the reporters and bureaus of Geo and Jang across Pakistan to assist with reporting on the ground and physically verifying things. They have published over 40 fact-checks in English and Urdu so far.
“The criteria that we have developed so far is that we want to fact-check reports that are in wide circulation on social media, are of public interest and could cause some kind of harm to public interest if they’re not fact checked in time. And as the next general elections come about, we want to make sure that we are able to timely fact-check information that could sway voters opinion and could negatively affect the voters opinion,” said Benzair Shah, editor at Geo Fact Check.
The service not only aims to fact-check reports circulating on social media but also verifies news reports at Jang, Geo and other affiliated organisations before they are published.
Shah acknowledges that a lot of baggage is attached to media organisations in Pakistan but is hopeful that by being transparent and publishing details about the team on the website, applying for an IFCN certification in future, being thorough and consistent, ensuring non-partisanship by not focusing on just one political party and as well as being open to rectify mistakes, people will rely on Geo Fact Check as a credible fact-checking initiative in the long run.
Jahangir said that fact-checking has become a “buzzword” on social media in Pakistan and every other day someone claims to be the first fact-checker in the country, which she finds frustrating. When it comes to the fact-checking scene in Pakistan, the discussion stops at Pakistan not having enough fact-checkers. Jahangir thinks that “while it is true, the conversation about what fact-checking is needs to happen, because that sort of takes this right away from everyone on Twitter calling themselves a fact-checker and now gaining a lot of following”.
Once people develop a good understanding of what fact-checking entails, they won’t have their trust in fact-checking broken by accounts and individuals claiming to be fact-checkers on social media platforms, she added.
Fatima believes the failure to hold accountable the individuals who are doing “fake fact-checks” or “fact-checks without due diligence due to not being trained” on platforms like Twitter is the problem.
“I’m increasingly becoming more aware that fact-checking itself is an industry globally. It’s a practice that happens independently and it’s not journalists necessarily who are fact-checking. So I think the bigger issue is this vacuum in Pakistan where fact-checking is not as mainstream as journalism is,” Jahangir said.
Going forward, in order to streamline fact-checking in Pakistan, it’s not only important to address issues such as transparency, funding, trust, accountability and awareness about what fact-checking entails, but also recognising that fact-checking needs to be independently done by trained and non-partisan fact-checkers and organisations.