Harris Zainul was quoted by the South China Morning Post

  • Misinformation about the virus has become so pervasive that Malaysia’s health minister warns it’s a ‘more critical’ issue than the disease itself
  • But who should take charge of combating rumours that are so far off the mark they could be fatal – governments or the social media giants?

By Tashny Sukumaran,  1 February 2020
From tales of “infected” mandarin oranges and Xiaomi phones, to reports of deaths when none exist and homespun cures for pneumonia, the internet has been heaving with fake news and disinformation about the new coronavirus.

The virus has already infected almost 10,000 people in 22 countries – the vast majority of them in mainland China – and upended global travel. By the weekend, more than 60 infections had been reported in 22 countries in Asia.

As local governments scramble to stave off what the World Health Organisation has declared a global health emergency, quashing rumours daily has become par for the course, along with tighter screening of inbound travellers and the ramping up of public health preparedness.

In Malaysia, health minister Dzulkefly Ahmad on Monday warned the public that the spread of fake news had become a “more critical” issue than the issue of the virus within the country.

“To counter this, we will have daily updates and hope the public will go to reliable sources for news instead of believing what goes viral on social media,” he said.

Malaysia and Singapore have both resorted to using the law on those who spread fake news, with Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information warning that the government would “use all tools at its disposal” to both provide accurate information to the public as well as deal with falsehoods that could cause panic and confusion.

In the last week, Malaysian police have arrested six people for spreading fake news on the coronavirus, while the Singapore government invoked its controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) for the fourth time to correct online falsehoods related to the virus.

Its correction orders can now be used on search engines and social media platforms such as Facebook, Baidu and Twitter for notices visible to all users, rather than just those who accessed the fake news item.

While the misinformation spreading online is capable of causing widespread alarm, what is also worrying the authorities in Asia’s multiracial societies is the increasingly racist slant of the rumours, as the virus was thought to have originated in a seafood market known for selling wildlife in the Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei province.

Although research has since shown that not all infections were linked to the market, ethnic Chinese and their eating habits have been blamed for the spread of the virus.

In Indonesia, a WhatsApp chain message claimed that Chinese-made goods could carry and spread the virus, leading health officials to assure the public that “buying clothes from China” would not spread the illness, while in Malaysia social media postings mocking Chinese accents and accusing the Chinese of causing deadly viruses by eating “exotic meat” were spread.

Helmy Haja Mydin, a respiratory physician based in Kuala Lumpur, noted that because the general populace could just “forward stuff and get info much more quickly”, people were becoming “anxious, paranoid”.

Steadily increasing anti-Chinese sentiment threatens to stoke tensions in the multiracial countries where ethnic polarisation is already an issue governments grapple with, with Zurairi A.R., an assistant news editor and columnist at the Malay Mail, saying the situation in Malaysia had been exacerbated by a lack of a scientific approach to verifying facts, latent racism against the Chinese community, and politicians backing the spread of this news to inflame anger against the government and so sow distrust.

To temper these feelings, he said his publication had decided to “skip inflammatory and divisive remarks from some in the opposition and some religious leaders that would only stoke panic”.

For several Malaysian activists, though, the authorities’ use of laws arguably deemed anti-free speech to maintain public order has ruffled feathers, including of British human rights group Article 19’s Malaysia chapter which called the move “counterproductive”.

“Instead of targeting those commenting on the spread of the virus, the government should prioritise transparency and openness in its own response to this global crisis,” said Article 19 Malaysia programme officer Nalini Elumalai, who instead urged the government to consider establishing consistent policies and infrastructure to promote freedom to information.

Malaysia’s fake news laws under its Communications and Multimedia Act were too wide and open to abuse, said constitutional lawyer Lim Wei Jiet.

“I am against the government enforcing [the law] in its current form. The government could criminalise the publication of statements which are clearly meant to and have a real prospect of causing public disorder and racial hatred.

“That is the red line the government should draw on, not on ‘fake news’,” he said

Singaporean criminal lawyer Amolat Singh, however, pointed to the latest use of Pofma on a forum where a commentator had falsely claimed there was a death in Singapore, saying it “clearly shows it is not to muzzle political free speech”.

He said the fake news law was a “handy tool to stem the spread of falsehoods before a small fire becomes a raging inferno”.

On Friday, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he was glad to have Pofma.

“This is one difference between this round and Sars in 2003. During Sars, we did not have the social media, this round you’ve the social media, you’ve WhatsApp and all sorts of stuff circulating around,” he said.

“Some [are] rumours – because people are scared and they hear something, it gets transmitted, it gets distorted, becomes untrue, you’re not sure but it’s very scary, you tell your family and friends and then it goes around. Some of it we know is malicious and deliberate. So people who are making up stories, people who are deliberately fomenting FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt. And we’ve acted promptly with them, against them, using Pofma,” Lee said.

Reputation-management specialist Terence Fernandez, who is based in Kuala Lumpur, said the government should ask itself if it was doing enough to publicise accurate information and soothe public concerns.

He said the Malaysian government suffered from a “trust deficit” from its poor handling of earlier crises, including the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 flight, the classification of air pollutant index readings as a state secret, and the late detection of past viruses like Sars and Nipah due to excessive bureaucracy.

“This does not give the public confidence that the government is telling them the truth, and hence they have a tendency to seek out and believe alternative sources of information, including dubious ones.”

With disinformation amplified by the pervasiveness of social media, several tech giants have launched initiatives to combat fake news in recent days. Google has launched an SOS Alert in partnership with the World Health Organisation to make resources on the coronavirus easily accessible to people affected by or looking to learn more about the outbreak.

Facebook on Friday also said it would begin removing “conspiracy theories” about the virus, particularly those that could cause harm, as well as blocking problematic hashtags on Instagram.

Separately, a collaborative programme coordinated by the International Fact-Checking Network has seen over 48 fact-checking organisations from 30 countries working to correct and address misinformation about the virus.

Some social media users have taken matters into their own hands, such as physician Helmy, who has used his Twitter account to correct falsehoods, noting that epidemics “affect human behaviour more than the human body”.

“I just got fed up with the nonsense I saw and also didn’t want my patients to be following the wrong stuff,” he said, adding that some of the more ridiculous rumours he had heard included one that drinking bleach or rasam, a South Indian spicy soup, could cure the illness.

“Technically speaking, drinking bleach will kill the virus. The side effect is that it will kill a lot of your own cells too,” he noted wryly.

Harris Zainul, an analyst from Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said governments could deter creators of hoaxes by investigating all cases of misinformation.

But at the end of the day, people needed to take it upon themselves to stop the spread of misinformation, he said. “Think before you hit ‘forward’.”

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on 1 February 2020

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