Health workers put on protective suits at the medical ambulance centre in Cairo, Egypt, on April 21, 2020 during the Coronavirus emergency. (Photo by Ziad Ahmed/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Misinfo, Disinfo, and Fake News in Egypt’s COVID-19 “Infodemic”

05/08/2020 . By Joey Shea

As early as February, the World Health Organization warned of a “massive infodemic” that was accompanying the COVID-19 outbreak. Social media and traditional media alike have been inundated with misleading and false information about the virus, while there is also a host of misinformation about the misinformation itself.

Egypt has unfortunately not been spared this “infodemic.” Because the Egyptian government’s frequently exaggerated claims of fake news allegedly concocted by bad actors as a cover for censorship at large, it is all the more difficult for concerned citizens to reasonably evaluate the extent of actual misinformation. In the current climate, however, it would be remiss to disregard these warnings about false news as simply the regime’s usual authoritarian posturing. This leads us to important questions about the nature and extent of COVID-19 misinformation on Egyptian networks: namely, what kinds of misinformation are circulating? Is the government responding effectively and proportionally?

Four Types of COVID-19 Misinformation

To answer these questions, I collected and analyzed 69 pieces of misinformation circulating within Egyptian networks between January and April from Matsda2sh, an Egyptian fact-checking organization. I classified each piece of misinformation and found that they fell within four broad categories: (1) false claims about the virus itself, including information on treatments, transmission, and vaccines; (2) false claims about the Egyptian government’s response to the epidemic, including public policies and programs; (3) content that is inaccurately and falsely contextualized; and (4) conspiracy theories and disinformation.

False claims about the virus itself were the most numerous from the sample, at about 39 percent. This type of misinformation includes false claims about treatments, such as the claim that drinking large amounts of water and salt will eliminate the virus and that gargling with vinegar will kill the virus. Additionally, it was falsely claimed that the virus is transmitted through the air and that summer months eliminate the virus. All other statements relating to false medical advice, such as the claim that taking large amounts of anti-pneumonia vaccines will prevent coronavirus, were included in this category.

The second type of COVID-19 misinformation concerns false and misleading claims about the government’s response to the virus. This accounts for roughly 23 percent of the sample and includes claims such as the government cancelling all public transportation on weekends, along with a range of incorrect information on the postponement of high school classes and exams.

The third category comprises real content, such as videos or photos, that are falsely contextualized and characterized as being different than they factually are. This category is often used to typologize misinformation in general, rather than an inductive category pertaining only to COVID-19 specific misinformation. They range from an old video of people in Peru praying in the streets that is incorrectly claimed to be Italy during the height of the coronavirus peak, to an incorrectly translated video of Angela Merkel from 2013 claiming that Germany had discovered a vaccine. There is no singular narrative or theme that neatly captures these disparate pieces of falsely contextualized content.

The fourth and final category concerns conspiracy theories and disinformation. The pieces found in the sample are dominated by a single theme: that the United States is responsible for the birth of the coronavirus. On January 23, Egyptian state-owned newspaper Al-Akhbar published a story suggesting the coronavirus was a biological weapon created by the United States. The story included quotes by Igor Nikulin, purportedly a former member of the United Nations Commission on Biological Weapons, suggesting that the epidemic was caused by the release of an American biological weapon. This story has been identified as a piece of pro-Kremlin disinformation by the E.U.’s East StratCom Task Force. Nikulin, who has no verifiable association with the United Nations, appeared on a number of pro-Kremlin Russian television programs with this claim, which was widely reported. Other variations of this narrative have appeared in Egyptian media, most of which have been identified by the East StratCom Task Force as pro-Kremlin disinformation. The disinformation follows a familiar pattern: first appearing in RT and Sputnik Arabic, before being picked up by Egyptian publications. The same narrative has also been spread by Iran and subsequently picked up by Egyptian outlets.

Between fighting misinformation and politicizing censorship

The Egyptian Cabinet’s Media Center has long produced “rumor reports” dedicated to remedying what it claims to be false news and rumors spread maliciously by bad actors, usually identified as the Muslim Brotherhood. These rumor reports are traditionally used to foster distrust in independent and social media and bolster regime-friendly narratives. In the time of coronavirus, however, these rumor reports have corrected prevalent misinformation about the epidemic. After surveying the Media Center’s reports pertaining to COVID-19 that were issued between January and April, on the whole, the Cabinet’s Media Center has taken a proactive role in correcting prevalent misinformation about the programs and policies launched in response to the virus. The Media Center has also adequately corrected false information about the virus itself—such as rumors about various remedies to cure the virus and incorrect information about how the virus is transmitted—all of which is based on the official information distributed by the WHO. However, given the prevalence and harm potential of this latter category, more space could be dedicated to this addressing this particularly dangerous misinformation. The government has been less effective at correcting erroneously contextualized social media content and disinformation.

The rumor reports are not the only response by the Egyptian government in confronting misinformation. The Ministry of Health launched an automated response service on WhatsApp dedicated to providing fast and accurate responses to questions about the coronavirus. The service provides statistics on the outbreak, accurate information about prevention, and answers to commonly asked questions. Facebook’s “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Information Center” also exclusively features updates and content from Egypt’s Ministry of Health.

Despite these efforts, the Egyptian state has not been completely impervious to politicizing the “infodemic.” At the end of March, the Media Center repeatedly denied claims that there was a shortage of personal protective equipment for health care professionals. More than one of the Center’s reports were dedicated to dispelling this rumor, and the refutation was widely covered in the state-owned and state-controlled press. Meanwhile, independent outlet Mada Masr reported that a number of government hospitals experienced a lack of sufficient protective equipment. Two days after the Media Center issued a denial of the shortage, the public prosecution warned of the harsh penalties for spreading false news about the virus: up to five years in prison and EGP 20,000.

The frequent practice of blocking websites and arresting citizens for spreading false news has also been launched in response to coronavirus misinformation. Two websites were ordered blocked by the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR), as a penalty for spreading false news about COVID-19, as well as six personal social media pages were ordered closed due to “promotion of rumors” about the virus. On March 12, three individuals were reportedly arrested for spreading false news related to the coronavirus on Facebook. Four more social media pages were ordered closed by the SCMR on April 9 and another blocking order was issued against a website called Shura. The website is accused of attributing false remarks to the health minister that were “demeaning to Egyptian pharmacists.”

While there is ample available information about the number of arrests and blocked websites, the SCMR has not issued any specific details about the content of the “fake news” that prompted these penalties. This, at best, indicates a severe lack of transparency in the process in which it censors platforms⁠—at worst, it suggests coronavirus misinformation is being used as a pretext for other motives. Transparency is necessary to ensure effective and proportional responses, particularly when rights and freedoms are being curtailed in order to respond effectively to a historic crisis. Individual arrests do little to stem the avalanche of misinformation and, instead, grossly violate citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of expression.

Despite the myriad of programs earnestly dedicated to combating harmful misinformation, the perceived success of these efforts are tempered by the government’s disproportionate censorship and arrest campaigns. The Egyptian state—whether through the SCMR or otherwise—has an obligation to its citizens to censor harmful misinformation, especially within the context of such a historic public health crisis. However, responses must be proportional, based on the reality of the threat and untainted by political motivations.