By now, Covid-19 is a worrying fact of life. Also a fact of life is how the onset of the pandemic has brought about a sense of nervousness, anxiety and concern among the general public.
At times like these, the public craves information they feel would allow them to stay safe and healthy. Taking this to its natural extension is that the people would only want to seek out and share information with their loved ones if they feel it could be beneficial for them, too. In other words, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
What is regrettable, however, is that it is coinciding with what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has deemed to be the “infodemic”. This 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”.
The above essentially means at a time when people crave information and would want to pass on seemingly credible information, there is an overabundance of potentially false news and facts out there. Considering this, the government’s strategy to deter would-be creators of false information by warning and prosecuting those who create false information tends to miss the mark.
Generally, this is because aside from cases of genuine bad apples in society who intentionally create and disseminate disinformation, many others could actually be unintentionally doing so with the best of intentions.
The deterrence strategy essentially places the onus on the people to determine for themselves what is truthful and accurate, and what is not. Make the wrong call, and the person could be open to prosecution.
Complicating matters here is that the legal provisions being utilised, namely Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998 and Section 505(b) of the Penal Code make, literally, no reference to the creation of false information. To be sure, the former makes the “improper use of network facilities” an offence, while the latter criminalises “statements conducive to public mischief”.
Worse is how these provisions are incredibly vague in its meanings, which translates to disproportionately broad applicability. Essentially, when determining whether the content is potentially illegal, the net is cast very wide.
To be certain, both Pakatan Harapan and the current Perikatan Nasional governments are “guilty” of relying on either one (or both) of these legal provisions to deal with Covid-19 false information. In fact, as of Sept 28, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) reportedly opened 268 investigation papers on disinformation pertaining to the coronavirus since the start of the movement control order (MCO) in March.
Besides that, due to the legalese in these provisions, it is not surprising that they are unable to signal to the public what are unacceptable behaviours. This affects people’s ability to understand and appreciate the meaning of these legislations.
Accordingly, how can the public be expected to understand that creating false information pertaining to Covid-19 or even sharing unverified information thought to be true but is actually false is a crime, and to regulate their conduct appropriately?
This, especially when fear and panic over rising cases would have prompted them to believe that time was of the essence, and swift dissemination of “facts” the key to survival. Do we really want to be prosecuting people for honest mistakes?
Take, for example, this case back in August when a 33-year-old trader was arrested and investigated under Section 233 of the CMA for allegedly falsely claiming a supermarket in Bandar Sunway had closed after a customer was diagnosed with Covid-19. The woman had claimed she had only intended to warn friends after receiving the alert on social media.
Or this case in February in which a woman was jailed under Section 505(b) for allegedly sharing unverified information about a case at a Cheras mall. In the latter case, however, it was unclear if the accused had done so with malicious or sincere intent.
As stated by psychology professors Prashant Bordia and Nicholas DiFonzo in the book Rumor Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend –
“Rumours arise and spread when people are uncertain and anxious about a topic of personal relevance and when the rumour seems credible given the sensibilities of the people involved in the spread.”
Digital literacy skills left wanting
To holistically tackle this problem, the Malaysian government must take the first step to understand the characteristics of Covid-19-related false information – what exactly are the false claims being made; the medium it is circulated on; the apparent motivation behind the creation of the false information; or whether it contained an element of imposter content, where the false claim is made out to be as if from a source of authority.
To be sure, answering these questions is no easy task as it would require significant resources and manpower to scour the internet, social media platforms, and communication applications (that are often encrypted).
Attempting to do the same, in a recent policy paper I co-authored with my colleague Farlina Said, we took to sampling more than 350 individual pieces of false information related to Covid-19 as fact-checked by Sebenarnya.my, the MCMC-run fact-checking portal, as a rough proxy for the volume of false information on the novel coronavirus in the country.
These samples were drawn from January to mid-June 2020, and the period covers Malaysia’s earliest Covid-19 positive case, to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Malaysia, and the consequent MCO. Of course, this data source was not perfect, and we do not claim that it presents a representative picture of Covid-19-related false information, but in the absence of any alternative, it was the best we had.
Our findings suggest the most common apparent motivation behind the creation of false information – which made up 91 percent of cases we analysed – was either to troll, to provoke, or due to genuine belief in the information itself.
We also found that the most common type of authority impersonated was the government, while the most popular false claim made – 70 percent – was either regarding some sort of action taken by the authorities or on the spread of Covid-19 within our communities, such as specific banks or other popular public spaces. Meanwhile, the most popular medium where false information had circulated were WhatsApp (39 percent) and Facebook (34 percent).
More importantly, the findings highlight the complexity in inferring good or malicious intent based solely on content and how the process in determining whether a false claim is misinformation or disinformation, i.e. unintentionally or intentionally misleading or false, is a difficult one. Understanding this would, of course, have implications on any potential legislation to regulate disinformation.
So, what to do?
To be sure, it is not to say that there is no room for the prosecution of those who deliberately create false information to deceive and/or cause harm. This is like those who intentionally release health-related false information to take advantage of human nature – we are more likely to be interested in information about danger and threats.
Having said that, prosecutions should, at most, only play a complementary role in the government’s fight against Covid-19 false information. Instead, the government should be focusing on addressing the human element – where people are more likely to want to share information they feel could be beneficial to others during this unprecedented pandemic.
Failing to do so, essentially leaving the onus on the people to determine for themselves what is accurate or not, is unfair. This is especially when considering plans to instil digital literacy skills among the public – such as how to fact-check (see video below) potentially false information, cross-reference news sources, and reverse image search – remains in the rudimentary stage.
Here, it must be emphasised that the public service announcements to “pastikan sahih” (ensure its veracity) and “tidak pasti jangan kongsi” (don’t share if you’re unsure) while catchy, do nothing to equip the people with much-needed skills to ensure the veracity of information.
Instead, the government must be playing a more active role in educating the public, rather than prosecuting those who could genuinely not have known any better.
This article was first appeared in Malaysia Kini on 14 October 2020.