Listen to this article now
The inaugural session of the 10th edition of the International Government Communication Forum (IGCF), organized by the Sharjah Government Media Bureau (SGMB), witnessed an exciting and insightful panel on the prevalence of conspiracy theories, their hold on the public imagination and the challenges faced by government entities and communications in countering them.
The session, attended by His Highness Shaikh Sultan bin Ahmed Al Qasimi, Deputy Ruler of Sharjah, examined conspiracy theories not only from a political standpoint, but went deeper to analyze the realities of their impact across sectors and on the public at large.
The panel was led by Member of the House of Lords UK Lord Philip Hammond, Chairman of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Political Consulting Dr. Fahed R. Alshelaimi, and CEO of International Media Investments (IMI) Nart Bouran, and moderated by Sky News Arabia presenter, Nadim Koteich. It has touched upon the ubiquity of conspiracy theories in the age of digital and social media, the media’s role in combating such theories and frameworks that can be put in place to increase trust between governments and societies.
Governments essentially face the same challenges of the past in that lies travel faster than the truth but misinformation today reaches billions of people in seconds, according to Lord Hammond, in the context of the pandemic and the numerous anti-vaccination theories and agendas it has spawned.
“This is a clear threat and undermines the work of science, truth and the government, and damages public health in a big way. The bigger challenge is the sense of disempowerment among the public that fosters conspiracy theories, which needs to be treated as both an immediate and long-term challenge,” Lord Hammond explained, Emirates News Agency (WAM) reported.
With almost five billion users on the internet today, social media and other digital media platforms approach it as a numbers game to propel business and the responsibility of controlling the spread of disinformation is a challenging one, pointed out Bouran.
The solution, as Lord Hammond noted, is to connect emotionally with the people that governments are trying to persuade, while presenting well researched facts and data. A clear narrative and convincing arguments, presented by respected figures and influencers and backed by facts-based research, offers the most effective approach to tackle them. The best example of this is the UAE’s 90 percent vaccination rate, achieved by transparent government communications, presented by dedicated and respected health authorities and influencers, in contrast to the anti-vaccination theories and misinformation that spread in other countries.
Dr. Fahed Al Shelaimi noted that conspiracy theories flourish in the face of ambiguity and lack of clear, transparent information channels from the government.
“Swift and clear media responses, and research institutions and platforms can help counter the issue,” he added.
Echoing the key points made by the panelists exploring the challenges faced by conspiracy theories, Bahraini social media star, influencer and filmmaker Omar Farooq gave a talk on how he used “undercover” videos shot in the most unexpected settings to spread information on humanitarian issues to his viewers and the general public. Showcasing his filmmaking “social experiments”; wherein he shot inside a prison, as a person with special needs going on Umrah in Makkah, as an undercover customs officer in Bahrain, and on the ground in Beirut after the devastating port explosion in 2020, Farooq noted that his efforts brought an understanding of the wider realities and challenges to his more than 500 million followers on social media. Through his work, he explored the ability of human communication and the importance of quick response to traumatic situations such as war, attacks or natural disasters.
Being held under the theme, ‘Historic lessons, Future ambitions’ at Expo Centre Sharjah, IGCF 2021 has brought together 79 experts in communication from 11 Arab and foreign countries to discuss innovative crisis management mechanisms and determine the future of government communication. The forum’s highlights include 31 events featuring 7 panel discussions, 5 inspirational talks, 7 training workshops, and 12 interactive programs, to envision the future of government communications and review mechanisms, tools, and changes in public perceptions.