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COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation Has Been Catching On In Lebanon

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Misinformation about the COVID vaccines is spreading through different countries for different reasons. In Lebanon, NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports it has to do with the country's sectarian divisions and rivalries.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: On Valentine's Day this year, viewers of Lebanon's OTV television channel found a strange piece in the main newscast.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This year, get her the one thing she's been waiting for.

SHERLOCK: On the screen, a man kneels as if he's about to propose. He opens a ring box, and there, cushioned among the velvet, is...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer.

(LAUGHTER)

SHERLOCK: The footage, which comes with audible laughter, was a comedy sketch from the "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Don't just be her somebody. Be her antibody.

SHERLOCK: But Lebanon's OTV presented it as serious news. It claimed this was a real pharmaceutical ad campaign in the United States. Gilberte Haddad, a senior representative of OTV, told NPR this was a genuine mistake. One of its producers thought this absurd portrayal was actually how the vaccine was being promoted in the U.S. But the channel has also hosted anti-vaxxers and shared common unfounded conspiracy theories, like the idea that the coronavirus is caused by 5G.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G.

SHERLOCK: OTV is owned by the son-in-law of Lebanon's president, and his viewers tend to be supporters of the president's Free Patriotic Movement, a right-wing Christian party with nativist views.

AYMAN MHANNA: The fact that it believes it's a minority, that it is under siege is a rhetoric that is very strong.

SHERLOCK: Ayman Mhanna, the executive director for the Beirut-based Samir Kassir Foundation for press freedom, says many members of this party believe they're being undermined by an influx of Muslim refugees.

MHANNA: And it's the case in many countries where people don't feel agency anymore. So they always have to explain what is happening by a certain conspiracy or a plot that powerful people somewhere created.

SHERLOCK: And it's not just Christians. Mhanna says you see conspiracy theories across Lebanon's sectarian society. Divided between Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, fear and misinformation can spread faster than fact.

MHANNA: When you decide to completely abandon your civic right to question and to hold people accountable, you're also more prone to accepting any idea that is not verified as long as it confirms your worldviews.

SHERLOCK: Of course, many Lebanese are eager to get vaccinated. Tens of thousands have received the vaccine, and more have signed up. And many politicians have used their media platforms to try to counter vaccine misinformation. Even OTV's Haddad says the channel will no longer allow inaccurate information about the virus on its air. But Nasser Yassine, a professor of policy studies at the American University of Beirut, says misinformation will continue to be a feature of Lebanese society that politicians will promote to strengthen their sectarian support.

NASSER YASSINE: It tells about how politics are played in Lebanon mostly for the sake of, you know, being in power. I mean, it's not about for the sake of being representing your community.

SHERLOCK: Lebanon has a lot of problems right now. There's an economic collapse, corruption and government paralysis. Yassine says conspiracy theories can be a useful tool for politicians to distract their people from their own failures.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODESZA SONG, "HOW DID I GET HERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.