In letter to Facebook, Pakistan’s polio chief thankful for efforts against anti-vaccine content

Babar bin Atta, the Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Polio Eradication, speaks during an interview with Arab News at his home in Islamabad, Pakistan on June 22, 2019 (AN Photo)
Updated 22 June 2019

In letter to Facebook, Pakistan’s polio chief thankful for efforts against anti-vaccine content

  • Since April, Facebook has removed up to 700 pages, links and profiles spreading spurious polio content on its platform
  • With Facebook’s support almost 80% targeted children vaccinated in June without any violence against health workers, Atta says

ISLAMABAD: The chief of Pakistan’s polio eradication program has thanked social media giant Facebook for removing misinformation from its platforms that discourages vaccination against the virus and endangers the lives of Pakistan’s 270,000 polio vaccinators and other officials involved in the anti-polio campaign.
Complete eradication in Pakistan, one of only three countries in the world where polio still persists, has been hampered by misinformation online, with some Muslim clerics and propaganda videos on social media platforms peddling stories that the vaccines are part of a Western plot to make Muslims sterile and that campaign workers are Western spies. Militant groups have killed nearly 100 polio health workers and their guards since 2012.
Facebook Inc, which along with other social media companies, has faced growing pressure in recent months over spurious content spread on its platform.
In a letter shared exclusively with Arab News on Saturday, Babar bin Atta, the Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Polio Eradication, said the country’s anti-polio initiative “would like to extend its sincere appreciation to Facebook in helping effectively regulate anti-vaccine content.”
“With the upsurge of anti-vaccine content across online platforms worldwide, it has been incredibly reassuring and encouraging for the entire Pakistan Polio Eradication Initiative to see Facebook proactively ramp up its efforts and policies to combat vaccine misinformation and harmful content,” Atta said.

In a letter shared exclusively with Arab News on Saturday, June 22, 2019, Babar bin Atta, the Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Polio Eradication, said the country’s anti-polio initiative “would like to extend its sincere appreciation to Facebook in helping effectively regulate anti-vaccine content.”

In April, religious hard-liners in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province raised a scare on social media through false rumors that some children were being poisoned from contaminated polio vaccines. Word on a number of platforms said some children had died.
The rumors triggered mass panic in the province as mobs burned a village health center, blocked a highway and pelted cars with stones. Medical workers were harassed and threatened and panicked parents rushed their children to hospitals, overwhelming health authorities. In Peshawar alone, about 45,000 children were brought to hospitals complaining of nausea and dizziness.
As a result of the false reports, families of hundreds of thousands of children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and elsewhere refused to participate in the May campaign to eradicate the virus that can cause paralysis and death.
Since then, Facebook has worked to remove up to 700 pages, links and profiles spreading spurious content on its platform, according to the office of the Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Polio Eradication.
“We are grateful for Facebook’s efforts to tackle misinformation through fact-checking … debunking several false claims that have been circulating around the polio vaccine,” Atta said in his letter to Facebook. “Your brilliant efforts in combating misinformation online have been indispensable in helping us reach out to concerned parents and caregivers and forge an enabling environment for vaccine against polio.”
Atta also said Facebook’s support had helped safeguard officials involved in the eradication campaign, saying that as of June 20, polio teams had been able to successfully vaccinate almost 80 percent targeted children in a sub-national campaign launched in June “without any incidence of violence toward our health workers.”
He said Pakistan could not achieve its goal of ending poliovirus transmission by 2020 without the support of partners like Facebook and hoped the “productive partnership” would continue.
In an exclusive statement to Arab News in May, Facebook Inc. had said it was “fully committed” to the safety of Pakistani users of its platforms and was taking steps to reduce misinformation about anti-polio campaigns as Pakistan makes a final push to eradicate the disease.
“We regularly review reports for vaccine misinformation, whether those reports come from our community or the government,” a Facebook spokeswoman told Arab News.
Outlining steps to combat misinformation, the representative said the company removed any content that violated Community Standards.
“If we find that the content does indeed contain misinformation about vaccinations, we reduce its distribution by reducing the News Feed and Search ranking of the Group/Page that shared it and by making sure we are not recommending this content on Facebook nor Instagram,” the spokeswoman said.
“We also rely on the work of leading global health organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who have publicly identified verifiable vaccine hoaxes. We will continue to work with Pakistan’s government and world health organizations on this important issue,” the spokeswoman added.
According to a Facebook official with knowledge of the campaign against vaccine misinformation, the company had recently been working to reduce organic distribution on vaccine misinformation content and to substantially lower the distribution of Groups or Pages on Facebook that propagate misinformation.
This includes working to remove offending Groups and Pages from recommendation surfaces on the platform (such as “Groups You Should Join”) and from predictions for when users type into search, the Facebook official who declined to be named said.
It also involves implementing changes so that Facebook doesn’t show or recommend content that contains misinformation about vaccinations on Instagram Explore or hashtag pages, she said. Content from the offending Groups and Pages is also demoted in News Feed, using ranking systems and the Groups and Pages themselves are also reduced in search results.
The Facebook source also said the company was taking taking additional steps to address hoaxes related to vaccines in advertising, investing in systems to better ensure that ads that include misinformation about vaccines are rejected. The company is also removing a number of ad targeting options, such as “vaccine controversies,” that might have been used to help spread misinformation, the official said.

Pakistan ‘wants to play its role’ for peace in Middle East – FO

Updated 12 January 2020

Pakistan ‘wants to play its role’ for peace in Middle East – FO

  • Work on foreign minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United States being done
  • Pakistan’s strong relations with regional countries has made it an important player

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated on Thursday that the country was going to play its role in restoring peace in the Middle East by working with other international stakeholders in the region.

“Pakistan welcomes de-escalation and wants to play its role in ensuring peace and stability in the region. We have seen that indication in United States President [Donald] Trump’s speech and are evaluating its contours,” the country’s foreign office spokesperson, Aisha Farooqui, said in her weekly media briefing in Islamabad on Thursday.

She said that Pakistan’s geographical position, along with its strong relations with regional countries and the United States, had made it a significant player in the Middle East.

“Pakistan has maintained that war is not the solution to any issue and made it clear that it will not become part of any regional conflict,” she said.

The spokesperson noted that Islamabad had enhanced its efforts to defuse tensions in the region and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had contacted his counterparts in Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and many other important states in this connection.

“All the international players, including Saudi Arabia, have said that the region cannot afford another war and asked for restraint from both parties [the US and Iran]. It’s a collective objective of all countries to ensure peace and stability in the Middle East,” she said.

Commenting on the foreign minister’s upcoming visit to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the US, she said that “work on these tours has already started and they will take place as soon as dates are finalized with the respective countries.”

“We are very mindful for our brotherly and friendly relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other regional countries. Pakistan and the US also enjoy longstanding relations and have contacts with each other through multiple forums including political and military leadership,” Farooqui said, adding that the foreign office had established a task force to continuously monitor the situation in the Middle East and inform the government about it along with its suggestions on a daily basis.

The spokesperson expressed hope that recent developments in the Middle East would not affect the ongoing Afghan peace process.

“Pakistan hopes that progress made on Afghan peace process will not come to a halt and the world community will not lose its focus as a result of the ongoing tensions in the Middle East,” she said.

Asked about the safety of Pakistani nationals in Iraq, she said the country’s embassy in Baghdad was on the alert to deal with any emergency situation.

“We are concerned about the safety of Pakistani citizens in Iraq and have issued an advisory in this regard. We have also instructed our mission in Baghdad to remain vigilant to deal with any emergency,” Farooqui said.