by Ragananthini Vethasalam / The Malaysian Insight / May 02, 2021

THE government needs carefully planned strategies to deal with the Covid-19 infodemic, or risk worsening vaccine hesitancy or even outright rejection of steps to achieve herd immunity, an analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Isis) Malaysia said.

An infodemic is an overabundance of information, including false information, during a virus outbreak.

Harris Zainul spoke to The Malaysian Insight on his soon to be published research paper A Framework Towards Addressing Vaccine-Related False Information In Malaysia, saying that the spread misleading and false information alongside verified data is showing no signs of abating.

“The need to act is clear. Leaving false information to thrive in the marketplace of ideas, where good ones theoretically should trump the bad, is untenable because humans are not necessarily rational decision-makers with healthy information consumption habits,” he said.

The government should not take hasty and heavy handed measures to curb misinformation and disinformation, as such measures could backfire and harden the stance of sceptics.

“It is critical to employ a more deliberate strategy to address vaccine-related false information,” he said.

Among the many things the government has to consider is the accessibility of information, where true and verified data is available but the public may not know how to access it.

“Information literacy is not really that well taught here in Malaysia. It is certainly something we can be improving,” he said.

“How do we tell people that these are the go-to sources, rather than the information they get on WhatsApp and social media.”

Harris’s research paper will carry proposed strategies on dealing with the infodemic, in particular, information on Covid-19 vaccination.

Pre-empt and debunk false info

One of them is the need to pre-empt and debunk false vaccine-related information.

“With research suggesting that certain types of false information are more resistant to correction, a pre-emptive strategy to inoculate the public against false information is very promising.

“This can be complemented with horizon scanning and scenario planning exercises to inform stakeholders on vaccine narratives developing elsewhere, allowing for more proactive responses.

“Further, traditional fact-checking and debunking must be more focused on vaccine-related false information, while more can be done to improve the reach of published fact-checks and funding for fact-checkers,” he said.

Promote truth

Harris also recommended the promotion of good information on vaccination and the inoculation process, and the importance of two-way conversations to dispel vaccine hesitancy and lingering doubts.

Information on the vaccination should be promoted on the website of the special committee for ensuring access to Covid-19 vaccine supply (JKJAV), while the use of in-person registration booths and door-to-door outreach should be conducted for people to have any doubts and questions answered.

Removing false content is also another useful strategy, Harris proposed.

“We propose for the government to set up a ‘trusted flagger’ programme in collaboration with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

“‘Trusted flaggers’ are subject matter experts who are empowered to lodge reports on vaccine-related false information directly to MCMC, who can then request social media companies to remove the content from their respective platform,” he said.

For example, the medical community could be roped in to play a more active role, as currently they have not been utilised to their full potential for vaccine advocacy or to counter vaccine-related false information, he added, and mentioned the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) and the Malaysian Medical Council (MMC).

The MMC, he said, can also act as a watchdog and enforce its professional code of conduct to address harmful viewpoints on vaccines originating from medical practitioners.

Punishment as last resort

Harris said authorities must ensure that moves to charge people over false information must distinguish between disinformation that causes harm and false information that does not. This will reduce the risk of ordinary people falling afoul of the law.

“The overarching idea behind this set of policy options is the need to clean up and enrich the marketplace of ideas by promoting good information and removing the false,” he said.

“Taken together, these policy options create a framework to deal with vaccine-related false information that prioritises educating, engaging, and empowering communities with the option to escalate matters through legislation and fines reserved as a last resort.”

Public sentiment towards government information

Harris also highlighted low public awareness on the portal, a government-run fact checking website launched in 2017.

“A very small number of people have heard of, it is quite disheartening,” he said.

Citing figures from the MCMC, which operates the website, he said only 20.4% of Internet users were aware of its existence in 2020. Of those aware, 59.4% have not visited the portal.

“I think more have to be done to improve its reach.

“One is that people who are exposed to viral false information do not necessarily see the fact check that is published later. Like fact-checkers anywhere else, we cannot reach 100% of the audience who received false information.

“Second, for better or worse, is a government channel under the MCMC. This could lead to perceptions of impartiality in fact checking government related issues. I am not sure whether this has affected the quality of the fact-checks,” he added.

As for the JKJAV website, Harris said there was no reason not to trust the information there as it was assessed by science and medical experts.

“To me, I think JKJAV has done a fantastic job and I don’t see why they shouldn’t be viewed as a trustworthy source.”

Since the pandemic, various government agencies, such as the Health Ministry’s Crisis Preparedness Response Centre, the National Security Council (MKN) and have set up Telegram channels to reach the public with constant updates on the developments related to Covid-19 and to debunk misinformation.

This article was first appeared on The Malaysian Insight on 2 May 2021.

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