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Fake News and Covid-19 in the fieldsite of al-Quds

Maya De Vries Kedem25 January 2021

Laila Abed Rabho & Maya de Vries

While Israel is now in the middle of a third full lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there are many who still question if the pandemic is real, or whether it is a worldwide conspiracy run by governments. Israel’s population is divided into several sectors: Religious Jews, Secular Jews, Palestinians, and other minorities. Those who are still indifferent about the Covid-19 pandemic and the actual existence of this virus are more likely to be found among the Arab and Orthodox Jewish communities. The latter is a rather ‘disconnected’ community when it comes to the ‘information society’ (Castells, 2003), with the use of the Internet and smartphones not being fully approved by their leading authorities – Rabbis (for more information about Internet use in the Ultra-Orthodox society see this report). The Arab community in Israel, as well as in al-Quds, which is under Israeli control, is not limited in terms of using the Internet or smartphones, however, it does suffer from a ‘digital divide’ due to lower rates of ownership of PCs, poor knowledge of Hebrew, especially among older women and al-Quds residents, a lack of trust in the Israeli authorities and intensive use of social media through which they receive news and other information (see the full report here in Hebrew). Obtaining news primarily through social media can be problematic since plenty of the ‘news’ is actually ‘fake news’. It is also important to mention here the fact that a lot of official information about the virus is first distributed in Hebrew, and only afterwards translated into Arabic, which leaves a gap that enables ‘fake news’ to be distributed in Arabic easily and rapidly.

In the past month, Israel, in a very impressive operation, started to vaccinate everyone over 60, followed by other age groups over 40. These last few weeks have been like a race between the pace of infection and the rate of vaccination. One of the reasons Israel has started so early is that the vaccination operation exploits the specific way in which the healthcare system has been constructed  Local clinics are managing the entire process under the supervision of the Ministry of Health. The fact that these local health clinics, which are divided into four state-mandated health service organisations (Clalit, Macabi, Leumit and Mehudedt) have medical records and personal information dating back thirty years (on average) on each patient gives Israel an advantage, as it will be able to provide the drug companies (Pfizer, Moderna and others) with detailed medical information about side effects such as allergies and other responses observed in those who received the vaccine. This is viewed by the companies as vital data that can be used for further research, but we will leave this to another discussion about the value of medical data and the issue of privacy.

The number of people who received the vaccine in al-Quds as of the 7th of January can be seen in the table below (though it is important to note that the data keeps being updated as the vaccination operation continues, and other age groups are starting to receive it now).

Figure 1. Data taken from Ynet (January 7th, 2021).

This information has not been broken down into the different ethnic groups that composed the population of Al-Quds. Although we looked for specific information about vaccination rates among Palestinians in Al-Quds, this was difficult to find.  We did receive some data through private email correspondence with the manager of the Clalit clinic in Dar al-Hawa, who said that that a quarter of the Palestinians over 60 had received the vaccine al-Quds. However, when comparing this rate to the rate of vaccination seen among the secular Jewish society in the city, this is a relatively low number. The general fear of the new vaccine is understandable. However, there is also the possibility that the fear is being combined with rumours based on ‘fake news’ items currently circulated on social media and WhatsApp groups, which can potentially put people in physical danger due to non-vaccination (see also Haaretz’s article Fake News during Covid-19 in al-Quds).

In Dar al-Hawa and al-Quds more generally, rumours and fake news about the virus and the vaccine have crossed gender, race, and religious differences.

Currently, it can be said that a significant number of people still do not follow the instructions given by the Ministry of Health and choose not to wear a face mask and to keep social distancing, while some are still holding wedding parties with many guests, though in private yards, since most halls are closed. There are also many cases of people still visiting bereaved families in person to give their condolences, although, in the first lockdown, this had stopped almost completely. Low levels of compliance with safety measures may have led to a significant increase in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Israel as well as in Al-Quds.

Some of these rumours, which circulate on Facebook and WhatsApp, continue to this very day and a serious effort is needed in order to weaken them. Among these rumours, there are a few narratives that keep getting circulated:

  1. One narrative says that this artificial virus was created by China in order to eliminate Muslims in cooperation with other major countries.
  2. Another says that the virus was created in order to get rid of the elderly in order to alleviate the global population crisis.
  3. There is also a rumour that says that this virus is part of a greater conspiracy led by the World Health Organization (WHO) in order to market and sell medicines.

These narratives have been circulated over Facebook and WhatsApp in the past few months and still today, despite the death toll and the increasing number of hospitalised people, they clearly have taken hold in parts of al-Quds. One of the ways both the military and the Palestinian social and political leaders in al-Quds have tried to fight these problematic rumours has been through circulating postings intended that oppose these positions through social media channels, intended to refute these rumours.  Two Facebook pages served as the main platforms for distributing reliable information about Covid-19. One is the Arabic-language official Facebook page of the Jerusalem municipality, and there is also a new Facebook page that was established at the beginning of the crisis (if less active at present), created by prominent Palestinian individuals and organisations working in al-Quds under the name The coalition of Jerusalem.

These Facebook pages are quite popular in terms of their number of followers, but when judged in terms of success, their impact seems limited as evident in the degree to which people still celebrate weddings and may not wear masks.

Figure 2 Example of a post from the Jerusalem municipality’s Arabic-language Facebook page, auto-google-translated here.

While rumours about the Covid-19 continued to circulate online, there are now additional fake messages about the expected vaccine which have also started to spread around. The message below repeats the often-heard point that the vaccine includes a chip that assists global superpowers in tracking individuals around the world (including obtaining their bank account details and giving them the ability to kill an individual).

Figure 3: Inaccurate message about the vaccine on the FATA Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Fatabyyano/)

In Dar Al-Hawa (our fieldsite), it is not easy to convince local residents to take the vaccine – and the rumours around it are not helping. In the current political situation of constant contestation in al-Quds, Covid-19 reveals how existing socio-economic gaps have a direct impact on the digital divide, itself related to infrastructure and education as well as poor access to the information originally published in Hebrew. The space created in these divides is quickly occupied by alternative and highly problematic rumours, which, if believed, can prove to be a matter of life and death. More than that, the circulation of false news items which then take the place of real news deepens the digital divide, increasing the divergence between hegemonic groups and non-hegemonic groups and extending the latter’s distance from mainstream and official information.

Circle of life – Ageing in Dar al-Hawa

Maya De Vries Kedem27 October 2020

By Laila Abed Rabho and Maya de Vries

While doing our ethnography in Dar al Hawa for almost two years, one of the songs that kept playing in our heads was Elton John’s “Circle of life”. It is not our intention to compare the ethnographic work to a Disney animation movie. However, when talking to people in Dar al-Hawa, young and old, “the circle of life” was a main concept in people’s lives. This notion is deeply embedded in everyday life, in terms of religious practices, beliefs, culture, language and the relationship to older people in the community. But it is not only older people that this notion is important to. We came to learn that the notion, or better said, the perception of “the circle of life” in Dar al-Hawa applies, first and foremost, to the individuals in society who are considered to be more vulnerable, whether it is older people, children, or those on low-incomes. This is also based on one of five foundations of Islam, that of Zakat: giving charity to those who are in need. This practice is one of the duties every Muslim should do.

The concept of “the circle of life” starts with childhood (Al-Tufula in Arabic مرحلة الطفولة  ) and includes several periods, starting with birth and continuing through to childhood, when the person, as a child, is considered to be vulnerable and cannot help others or take care of themselves without the help of another person, especially their mother’s help. The second stage is the youth stage) Al-Shabab in Arabic مرحلة الشباب), which includes adolescence and can be extended until the age of 30, depending on whether the children leave the house or not. Usually, during these stages, the person in question is considered to be at the height of their power, and he or she does not have any major life problems, he or she is ‘accepted’ as someone who can take care of himself as well as others.

Palestinian girl scouts performing at the seniors’ club at Dar al-Hawa. Photo by Maya de Vries.

The third stage is the stage of adulthood, which extends from the age of 30 to about 40,  sometimes 50, and is also considered to be the period of the middle age (in Arabic Kahel كهل), when men and women are starting to feel, to some extent, that they are becoming older. We spoke with several women aged 40 and over and they were pleased to be living in this period, especially because most of them did not suffer from any serious medical conditions. However, an issue they raised in the interviews was that of stress – some of them said that they are suffering from mental stress in their lives.

The fourth stage is the elderly stage, seniority. This is defined by the word Sheikhuha (in Arabic شيخوخة), meaning an old man or an elderly person who is either physically or mentally/cognitively vulnerable or not necessarily physically or mentally vulnerable, but is aged above 60. The word Sheikh has a positive meaning in Arabic and refers to someone who has extensive knowledge, as defined by Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyyah. So older people are acknowledged as wise individuals that the community should listen to, simply because they have lived longer than us and have more life experience.

The last period, after Sheikhuha , is that of Ardel al-Omar (أرذل العمر), which refers to a period that signals the beginning of dementia, when a person does not know who he or she is anymore. It can be said that the ageing process is divided into two parts: the first is the ageing of the body, which is the beginning of frailty and various diseases, when the person becomes unable to carry out his or her duties and take care of themselves. However, not every person who reaches this stage is unable to take care of themselves, and there are older people who do not need anyone’s help and are able to take care of themselves and are still residing in their homes. They usually live near their family, near to at least one of their children, which means that family care is available, at different levels, according to the older person’s needs as well as the family’s capabilities.

Old woman and a young woman in an activity at the seniors’ club in Dar al-Hawa. Photo by Maya de Vries.

Geographical closeness, the actual living in the same physical space as the family usually has a positive connotation and is an integral part of the notion of “the circle of life” in Dar al-Hawa. A person is born in a specific location, which becomes his or her home. They then raise their family there, grow old there, and eventually die there. ‘The home’ is not just four walls of concrete but also means the land, the territory the home was built upon. Hence, the holding of the home equals to the holding of the land, the family’s territory. In many ways, being an owner of land provides stability, especially when the owner becomes older and cannot work anymore. This stability is extremely important to one’s tranquillity and serenity, which are highly important when getting old. In Islam, as in other cultures, mental health and the ‘health’ of the soul are part of older’s people condition – it is important to have a healthy mind to have a healthy body. When the ‘soul’ starts to lose its connection to the body, meaning memory gets lost, a different stage begins.

When talking with older people in Dar al-Hawa, it felt that there is an acceptance of the notion of “the circle of life” as part of people’s faith and religion. Below, 77-year-old Yasmin’s quote reflects this kind of acceptance of ageing and death quite well – an acceptance we found was widely present among most of the women we spoke with:

“We’ll see what happens next year, maybe I’ll die. Am I thinking about death? I am a believer; I believe in God… Whatever comes will come. This is our religion. The way we look at life in Dar al-Hawa is almost always done through the religious prism, God is the one who determines and determines our destiny, He sees and knows everything. Moreover, the default setting of medical care in Israel, including care for the elderly, is to save and extend lives rather than maintaining the quality of life. This thesis is based on a religious belief in the sanctity of life, on the idea of ​​the circle of life – the emphasis is on the stages, on how each stage is necessary, and probably has a purpose, even if you do not see it at that moment, God knows what, and Man, in the end of things, will know what it is.”

The religious-cultural perception, and to a large extent, the moral perception in Islam, according to the popular interpretation in Dar al-Hawa, is that (older adults are among the most vulnerable in human society and should be taken care of within the community out of respect. This is a moral duty, a religious duty. When thinking about the concept of the circle of life as a framework that shapes daily life and routine in Dar al-Hawa, it is important to understand that it is embedded within the religious practices that shape how a young person should behave with older people and the reasons for behaving in this way. The young person should respect older people, speak to them with dignity, and take care of them as much as he or she can. When he or she reaches this stage (that of being older and eventually elderly), another young person will do the same for them. This is the basic understanding of the circle of life.

Social activity at the community centre, for young and old alike. Photo by Maya de Vries.

With this framework in mind, we return to one of the central topics of the ASSA project: that of smartphone use. Smartphones are carried by most older people in Dar al-Hawa. When contemplating their role in the “circle of life”, we did not see them as violating or breaking the cycle, at least not for the current older generation we were in contact with. On the contrary, we found that smartphones were making the meaning of the circle of life stronger, at least in the sense of helping maintain relationships with the family and community. Things might have been different if older people in Dar al-Hawa were strongly embracing digital culture (e.g. using apps other than WhatsApp and Facebook, paying for services and goods online, paying with their smartphone and so forth). This is one of the topics we will be tackling in our upcoming monograph, ‘Ageing with Smartphones in Al-Quds’, which is due next year.