Countries in the Middle East and North Africa have been using the COVID-19 pandemic to further their political goals, in particular by spreading disinformation, a reported published on Monday by the Francophone Association for Human Rights (AFDH) has said.
In addition to the spread of coronavirus, the proliferation of misinformation surrounding it, has led the World Health Organisation (WHO) to refer to an "infodemic", defining it as an "overabundance of information, some accurate and some not, that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy source and reliable guidance when they need it".
With authoritarian governments accused of using disinformation to stifle democratic reforms and to consolidate power in the past, the report claims in amidst the current pandemic, the region has witnessed the promotion of conspiracy theories which have undermined elections and exacerbated pre-existing rivalries with neighbouring countries.
One such online campaign sought to incorporate messages linked to the virus and involved an attempt to promote Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Haftar who is backed by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory are said to have identified thousands of social media accounts praising the Saudi leadership whilst being critical of Qatar, Iran and Turkey.
Turkey dispatching coronavirus infected fighters to Libya to battle against Haftar and Qatar Airways being the "official carrier of coronavirus" are examples of misinformation being spread which was cited in the findings.
According to the European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano some netizens have even resorted to exploiting the crisis to enflame sectarian hostilities online.
Others have cited Turkey along with Iran as downplaying the full impact of the virus. "Putting further pressure on the media, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in Turkey has followed the footsteps of China and Iran in censoring information about the prevalence of the virus," according to Turkish analysts.
Failure to effectively address fake news regarding cures have also led to hundreds of deaths, as in Iran where some resorted to consuming methanol in the mistaken belief it would protect them from the virus, while one Iraqi news channel featured a headline falsely claiming an Iraqi pharmaceutical company had developed a treatment for coronavirus.
The report concludes by highlighting that millions of lives are at risk if governments do not take their responsibilities seriously in terms of disseminating accurate information to their citizens in a region already beset with social and political challenges.