Social media “bullshit” threatens control of COVID-19 outbreak in PNG

Written by Sue Ahearn

A PNG Member of Parliament died from COVID-19 this week, but it still wasn’t enough to convince many Papua New Guineans that the virus is real and is probably out of control in their country.

Misinformation and lack of trust in authority is so widespread in PNG that social media questions and vilifies the country’s most experienced doctors and scientists.

Even the PNG National Pandemic Controller, David Manning, was accused of peddling a hoax when he confirmed the MP for Open Kerema, 53-year old Richard Mendani, had died from COVID-19 at the weekend.

Conspiracy theories are spreading faster than COVID-19 on PNG social media. Posts claim COVID-19 is an invention of the West to control population, that Papua New Guineans are guinea pigs for vaccines and that God is protecting Melanesians from catching the disease.

The Senior Consultant specialist clinician at the Port Moresby General Hospital, Glen Mola, called it the “bullshit of social media” in a Facebook post this week.

He wrote: “Sorry, getting a bit frustrated here with some of my compatriots. Health workers are risking their lives to continue to provide health services and many people are just spending their time on screens accusing us of unethical practice, criminal and corrupt misuse of government funds and putting forward false, ridiculous, unfounded conspiracy theories for which there is no evidence.”

Earlier in the week he warned that his hospital would not be able to keep its doors open and women “may end up dying in the hospital car park”.

Women scientists and journalists in particular have been singled out for vile misogynistic abuse on Facebook.

ABC Tok Pisin journalist Hilda Wayne turned off comments on her Facebook posts at the weekend. She said she was quoting direct sources on COVID-19 and turning off comments to stop the toxic responses and interactions.

That the detection of COVID-19 cases in PNG has tripled in the past month is not a surprise to those aware of the healthcare situation in the country. Two thousand mothers die in childbirth every year. Tuberculosis, pneumonia and malaria are rife, but they are diseases that can be treated.

New restrictions, including the wearing of masks, take effect this week (Monday) but these will be almost impossible to enforce in PNG. The majority of the population of nine million live closely together, either at home or when they travel on public transport. 90% live in rural areas and just 15% have access to grid electricity.

While Australians look on in blind horror and surprise at the disaster unfolding in our nearest neighbour, we are also watching a failure in communication and education.

Australia used to play a major role in providing independent and trusted news to the Pacific, but importantly also providing news about the Pacific to Australians.

The ABC’s international broadcasting to the Pacific was cut drastically in 2014 following the Abbott Government’s decision to cancel the Australia Network contract. Around 80 staff, many of them with years of specialist experience in covering the Pacific, were made redundant, including members of the Tok Pisin (PNG) and French language teams.

Since then, Australia’s media voice in the region has been reduced to a whisper. The ABC does not have the resources by itself to provide a comprehensive international multi-platform media service.

The small specialist Pacific team that is left provides an excellent service, but is stretched.

The ABC’s PNG correspondent Natalie Whiting provides outstanding coverage, but she’s the only full-time Australian journalist based in the Pacific.

Technology has given the Pacific a voice to the rest of the world and people are able to share information instantly. That includes misinformation.

Mobile phones come loaded with Facebook as part of prepaid data plans in many Pacific countries. Most people cannot afford to pay for internet browsing. Affordable mobile data plans offer cheap access to Facebook.

There are varied figures for the percentage of population on Facebook. It’s highest in French Polynesia 59%, Tonga 49%, and Cook Islands 49%, and lowest in PNG 7%, Kiribati 25% and Solomon Islands 11%.

I noticed the gap in independent and factual information about three years ago when I founded The Pacific Newsroom on Facebook (also on Twitter but with a smaller presence).

It’s an aggregated site of verified and independent news about the region – from journalists, academics, analysts, bloggers and citizen journalists.

The Pacific Newsroom has become the town square of the Pacific where people can share stories. Facebook has allowed this to happen, because it is the internet in the Pacific.

We have more than 20,000 members, not just from the region, but Fijians based in South Sudan and Afghanistan, seasonal workers in Australia and Tongans in Utah.

We fill a role that should be publicly funded. New Zealand journalist Michael Field and I work as volunteers, sharing a long-term commitment to public interest journalism.

While traditional media, radio, TV and newspapers retain an important role, distribution is not always reliable. We know that in the absence of accurate and trusted information, rumour, speculation and innuendo fill the vacuum.

The Pacific had a tragic example of this in Samoa in 2019, when 83 children died because of a drop in measles vaccinations and misinformation by anti-vaxxer groups.

That’s why the dissemination of accurate and trusted news is vital to countering misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australia and New Zealand are providing support in the way of vaccines, but people won’t get vaccinated if they believe conspiracy theories.

Professor Mola says the propagation of this misinformation has the potential to lead to thousands of deaths in PNG if people pretend COVID-19 does not exist.

Australia and New Zealand should be working with PNG on rolling out a national multi-media information campaign to help fight the “social media bullshit” as part of their assistance package.

This pandemic has shone a light on what works and what doesn’t. Things aren’t working in PNG and it’s time for Australia to take a closer look at its relationship with the neighbours.

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Sue Ahearn

Sue Ahearn is a journalist and media consultant specialising in the Pacific and Asia. She is the founder of The Pacific Newsroom, and also co-convenor of the industry group Supporters of Australian Broadcasting in Asia and the Pacific.

4 Comments

  • The post here and comments are really informative and touch on some important issues that impact on the Covid discourse in PNG, and neighbouring Solomon Islands. I have seen the same type of responses on every Solomon Islands’ forums, and have no doubt it is reflective of the conversations on the streets, in the villages and households.
    Points made about the amount of misinformation and ‘bullshit’ that has been spread by the ‘West’, to, for and about Pacific Islanders and other indigenous populations, since colonial times, certainly creates an environment of inevitable distrust, as stated by previous commentators. Not surprising that ‘hope and prayer’ become the ultimate ‘solution’.

  • From Peter Dwyer and Monica Minnegal
    Thanks to both Sue and Yvonne for your important and thoughtful article and comment. We do wonder whether antivax sentiments are stronger in PNG than they are elsewhere in the world and agree with Yvonne that, in PNG, many people are simply questioning ‘the way things have been done so far’ and would like access to answers they can trust. MP Bryan Kramer wrote on Facebook that he would take the Covid-19 vaccine and said why it was important. Thirty-two of 86 comments on his post rejected his argument: they asserted that vaccination was not in accord with God’s plans, the disease was fake, so-called medical ‘experts’ could not be trusted, ‘whites’ were treating ‘black’ people as guinea pigs, Kramer had no authority to speak because he lacked medical qualifications, and Kramer had himself been infected because (unlike most Papua New Guineans) his immune system was weak. Eight brief comments agreed with Kramer, nine wrote that vaccination should be a matter of personal choice and 28 wrote of their sense of confusion and their desire for more information. Eight correspondents asked for details of the late 2020 report that University of PNG scientists had discovered a cure for Covid-19 disease and had been awarded a grant of K10.2 million. [This issue recurs often in social media posts.] And, as is common in PNG, one correspondent asked what had happened to all the money that had been allocated to handle the pandemic.
    So about one third of the comments on Kramer’s post were unambiguously opposed to vaccination. Reasons for opposition on this and other posts vary enormously. They are often inconsistent. In one stream, Australia is thanked as ‘our mother country’ for providing vaccines to PNG. In another stream, responding to the same news item, Australia is party to a plot to destroy ‘PNG people’ and gain unrestricted access to the mineral wealth of that country. In one post, God has sent floods to Australia as punishment for forcing vaccines on PNG. In another, ‘high profile’ PNG citizens keep dying at the Pacific International Hospital because the expatriate doctors employed there have fake qualifications. The theme that often recurs, and warrants attention, is an understanding that God has blessed Papua New Guineans with ‘natural’ immunity.
    Our optimistic guess is that people will assess available evidence, respond to what is emerging as a dire situation and, in the end, for the most part, decide to be vaccinated. Regrettably, there are some senior politicians who, though stressing that vaccination will not be mandatory, are not forthcoming about the importance of achieving high levels of vaccination. Other politicians are unwilling to speak to the press on this issue (Post Courier, Mixed reaction over vaccines, 24 March 2021). These men are not being helpful, some of them could do with re-education.
    So too, it seems, could Mark Zuckerberg. Today, in a mix of Tokpisin and English, the administrator of the Facebook group Fly River Forum advised that posts opposed to vaccination may be rapidly taken down to avoid the possibility that the group itself will be closed by Facebook. ‘Olgeta post or comment where mipla workim against long kissim sut em line blong yumi long Facebook ol rausim same speed. … Please bear in mind the platform is privately owned by bata Zuckerberg na ol mobs blong em.’
    With that kind of censorship, who wouldn’t be inclined to conspiratorial readings of the world of Covid and rich white men’s power.

  • Not all naysayers on social media entirely believe Covid in PNG is a hoax, many common people believe that COVID does exist in PNG. Many just question the way things have been done so far due to growing frustration associated to other factors.

    The low number of testing has painted an unclear picture of the actual situation on the ground so far. By this stage, it is suspected by many Papua New Guineans that the virus has been widespread and many have already had experience with COVID like symptoms. Some have been unfortunate to lose their lives, all unrecorded. A majority have recovered from the virus hence perceive it as just another sickness so they question authority. Especially given that a huge sum of money was available for COVID operations but that seems to have vanished into thin air. And with the growing number of COVID cases the lack of trust grows too.

    Unfortunately, the disappointment is now been directed to Australia for the gesture of donating vaccines. Perhaps if the PNG government took the lead in sourcing the vaccines without Australian intervention it would have reduced suspicion. Despite the generous gesture many Papua New Guineans feel it suspicious. For noting that suspicion some Papua New Guineans have been subject to a mouthful from some Australians who seem to be trolling PNG groups arguing with Papua New Guineans speaking up. Facebook is perhaps not the best place to have a professional conversation as I have learnt but it proves to be the best place to learn what’s happening in the world.

    Part of the raised suspicion is influenced by global movement against the use of experimental vaccines. Facebook has allowed users in PNG to read other news from around the world. And with the spike in COVID cases Australian media seems to have a better coverage of the situation here in PNG compared to PNG media. This observation has raised concerns about the possible underlying reason. What’s new? In Australia there are protests about the vaccine rollout too.

  • Great article, thank you Sue. I and my team, Wantaim PNG, work in rural PNG. Working with local government partners in April 2020 we kicked off a province wide delivery of regular soap supplies and flyers with preventative measures. 12,000 households, 133,000 bars of soap. Being for the most part the only voice talking about COVID made it enormously challenging. The 8,000 vaccines from Australia is a welcome but small step. I despair about the likely uptake: how receptive can we expect folk to be when for the most part little info has reached them about COVID at all? I despair over the loss of the (ABC) short wave broadcast which was the platform to do that and so much more. It was a trusted (Australian!) voice reaching far into rural communities. Imagine. Thank you Sue for putting the case for more, so clearly.

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