Papua New Guinea’s health minister, Jelta Wong, spoke with an Australian think tank over videochat on Thursday about challenges PNG faces in combatting the covid-19 pandemic. PNG is seeing a resurgence of the disease along with a growing wave of misinformation being spread online about vaccines, and the talk is an interesting look at how Facebook has harmed public health in a relatively small country of just 9 million people.
“When Facebook hit Papua New Guinea, everybody became an expert. Everybody became a PhD, ” Wong explained sarcastically to a member of the Lowy Institute in a video that’s available on YouTube.
Wong, who says he uses Facebook to connect with family, went on to explain that while some people might be skeptical when they encounter misinformation on Facebook, there’s always a handful who will believe the weirdest conspiracy theories.
“There’s always one person or two or three or four people that will believe what they say. And that is our biggest challenge when people tell us that Bill Gates is behind all this. How could we say Bill Gates is behind it?” Wong said, referring to conspiracy theories that the Microsoft cofounder is implanting microchips through coronavirus vaccinations, among other things.
“One of the biggest philanthropists in the world...” Wong continued about Gates. “And then some nutcase turns around and puts it on Facebook that he’s the guy that started the collecting [illicit information] and then it just generates through Facebook. I think Facebook is is our biggest conspiracy theorist platform.”
“This is dangerous, very dangerous,” Wong said. “And this is the type of thing... like, we have a million more people in our country that just sit on Facebook because it’s cheap, it’s easy, and they can get their opinion out. That’s all it is for.”
Papua New Guinea struggled with Facebook long before the pandemic hit, with government officials even floating the idea in 2018 of banning the site and launching its own state-run alternative. And while a minority of people in Papua New Guinea are on the platform it’s still clearly contributing to headaches for health officials who want to see people vaccinated.
Facebook’s moderation policies receive a lot of attention in the U.S. and Europe, but many parts of the globe don’t get the same resources, especially in places that don’t speak English. PNG has a large English-speaking population, thanks in large part to colonialism, but it also has over 830 languages currently in use, a high number for a relatively small population. Facebook has moderators working in roughly 50 languages, according to its own statistics.
“I think Facebook has a lot of influence here and they need to be held responsible for some of the information that they [distribute],” Wong said.
“Most of it, if I take you through Facebook now... some of the stuff that is unbelievably not true. And they still push it out and they’re [...] supposed to have a program to stop these type of things.”