PARALLEL to the spread of Covid-19 is its infodemic. Coined by the World Health Organisation, it refers to a situation where there is “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.
Indicating the extent of the infodemic in Malaysia is how Sebenarnya.my, the fact-checking outfit under the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), had fact-checked more than 350 different Covid-19-related claims between January and June 2020.
The same period had also seen the MCMC, together with the Royal Malaysian Police, opening more than 260 investigation papers on Covid-19 “fake news”, with 30 of these leading to charges in court. Eighteen have pleaded guilty, and 11 others have been given warnings.
Notably, no new investigation papers were opened by the police and MCMC in the first three weeks of June. The government has interpreted this to mean the public has gained sufficient understanding and appreciation of the importance of not sharing unverified information.
Furthermore, Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah has launched a dedicated television channel to provide round-the-clock “factual and verified” news, with a programme aimed at any instances of false news spreading among the public.
To be absolutely clear, countering false information, especially in an incomplete information environment, is an incredibly arduous task. All credit should be given to those on the frontlines fighting the infodemic.
Having said that, the following are options to consider, going forward.
First, it must be emphasised that despite the apparent “success” being enjoyed now, the overarching potential and concern for abuse associated with vaguely worded, broadly applicable legal provisions such as Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 remains. It must be remembered that temporary usefulness does not negate the need for a more specific legislation that better protects free speech and limits the potential for abuse.
Second, the current strategy to address the infodemic could be complemented by including elements of false information inoculation. Similar to the medical field where inoculation refers to the act of introducing a small quantity of a virus into a person’s body to build immunity, the same can be done by informing the public of general types and trends of false information.
This could be implemented through the new television channel or existing mediums which could then build society’s ability to spot false information as it comes. This would complement the current strategy that predominantly hinges on creating deterrence, which is ineffective in addressing those who genuinely believe in the unverified information’s veracity, and fact-checking initiatives that are doomed to remain in the shadow of reactiveness.
Thirdly, it is also clear that Sebenarnya.my’s coverage thus far has only been in Bahasa Malaysia. While Malaysians are expected to be literate in the national language, lived realities would dictate that there is no harm in also publishing the fact-checks in other languages spoken by Malaysia’s plural society. This will ensure the hard work put into fact-checking false information can reach the widest audience possible.
Fourthly, there must be policy conversations on social media regulation. While understandably this would be a prickly topic for human rights defenders, it must be admitted that free speech in Malaysia is not without limitations. This is crucial as any comprehensive solution to the infodemic must also address the platforms that allow it to spread.
In closing, by and large credit must be given to the infodemic’s frontliners for their efforts thus far. But having said that, and being fully cognisant of how Covid-19 will be a long-drawn-out affair, more must, and can be done to address the infodemic.
This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 2 July 2020.