[Liberal Studies] World Health Organisation tackles global ‘infodemic’ amidst coronavirus


Fake news on social media about Covid-19 fuels racism and panic worldwide

Doris Wai |

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) has tasked communication and social media teams with fighting misinformation about the new coronavirus, including the rumour that smoke from fireworks can kill the pathogen.

“The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ – an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not,” the Geneva-based UN health agency said early this month. Using the official acronym for the virus, the WHO said that the flood of information has made it hard for people to distinguish myths from facts.

With disinformation amplified by the pervasiveness of social media, several tech giants have also launched initiatives to combat fake news. 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 said last month 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.

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Issue 1

Last month, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said a “large amount” of misinformation regarding her administration’s efforts against the virus had been spread online, hampering the government’s efforts to control the spread of the disease.

“This will seriously affect our work in preventing and controlling the epidemic, and will also cause unnecessary panic … At the end it will be Hong Kong residents who suffer.” Lam said.

One of these rumours included an allegation that the government had stockpiled 100 million surgical masks, a claim based on the information that prisoners in Hong Kong produce the item under the supervision of the Correctional Services Department. The government clarified later that its logistics department was required to maintain a stockpile of 10 million masks for distribution to other departments.

In another viral post, the authorities were accused of banning the import of face masks and other sensitive items because of the months-long anti-government protests. It turned out to be a case of online shopping with delays in delivery.

Francis Lee Lap-fung, director of Chinese University’s School of Journalism and Communication, attributed the rumours to the public’s lack of trust with the government, which he said had grown out of the political crisis, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill last year.

“Many of the posts are interpretations on why the government appears to be reluctant in doing what people want,” he said.

The spread of fake news extends beyond Lam’s embittered administration. Panic buying hit Hong Kong last week as toilet paper, facial tissues, instant noodles, rice, and sanitary goods were almost sold out at a number of supermarkets across the city.

A WhatsApp message claiming to be an internal update from Wellcome, one of the two largest supermarket chains in Hong Kong, said most brands of toilet paper along with popular brands of noodles, canned foods and drinks manufactured in now-closed factories on the mainland would soon run out.

Wellcome later clarified that such claims circulating online were mere rumours. “We are working closely with our suppliers to provide a sufficient and diversified choice of products to our customers,” a spokesman said.

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Issue 2

While the misinformation spreading online is capable of causing unnecessary panic worldwide, what is also alarming is the increasingly racist tone of the rumours.

One venue where that’s playing out is Uber and Lyft cars in the United States as customers and drivers of Asian descent reported a raft of complaints, including inappropriate comments or cancellations due to their appearance or name.

The ride-hailing apps show drivers’ and riders’ first name, usually accompanied by a picture, of the person they’re connected with before pickup. The companies have said the feature is designed for safety and ease of use, but it has for years been singled out as a method for discrimination.

Uber and Lyft Inc. said they have anti-discrimination policies and would remove a rider or driver from the system who was found to be in violation. Critics contend the companies aren’t doing enough to address discrimination.

According to Lilian Wang, a tech industry employee, a Lyft driver at San Francisco International airport wouldn’t unlock his car door until her Caucasian friend approached. The driver “asked if we’d arrived from China” and “noted that he had refused a ride to someone with an Asian-sounding name.” Another Asian American driver said the number of jobs available to her has plummeted after news of the outbreak.

In online forums, the conoravirus is a main topic of conversation among drivers. Posts on a private Facebook group popular with drivers describes precautions some are taking against the coronavirus. They include stocking cars with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

Harry Campbell, author of the Rideshare Guy blog, said he suspects many drivers are bypassing people based on their ethnicity over fears of infection: “The feedback we’re getting from drivers is that their safety is paramount to a rider’s feelings and any potentially discriminatory issues.”

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Issue 3

As local governments scramble to stave off the global health emergency, quashing rumours daily has become par for the course.

Malaysia and Singapore have both resorted to using the law on those who spread fake news, with Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information stating 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.

The Singapore government has invoked its controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), which came into effect on 2 October 2019, 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.

Singaporean criminal lawyer Amolat Singh 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”.

In Malaysia, health minister Dzulkefly Ahmad warned the public that the spread of fake news had become a “more critical” issue than the issue of the virus within the country. Last month, Malaysian police arrested six people for spreading fake news on the coronavirus.

The move has been deemed anti-free speech by several Malaysian activists, including British human rights group Article 19’s Malaysia chapter which called the move “counterproductive”.

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’.”

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The WHO’s health body’s teams are working around the clock to identify the most common rumours that could pose public health risks, such as false prevention measures or cures.

“Can the smoke and gas from fireworks and firecrackers prevent 2019-nCoV?” is one of the questions that the WHO debunks on Facebook.

Addressing concerns about ordering goods from China, the WHO also explained that receiving letters or packages from the virus-affected country is safe. “From previous analysis, we know coronaviruses do not survive long on objects, such as letters or packages,” the agency said.

In another social media post, the WHO cautioned people against applying sesame oil or chemicals to prevent infections.

According to Masato Kajimoto, a professor at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre who specialises in news literacy and misinformation ecosystems in Asia, misinformation during the coronavirus outbreak is more organic than targeted campaigns, making it different from political fake news produced by resourceful bad actors.

There is little concerted effort to mislead the public or influence public opinion in this situation, so platforms can’t solve the problem, he said. This is especially true in Hong Kong, he added, where rumours and unsubstantiated claims are exchanged on encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp.

“I think it’s ultimately the news audience and social media users who should be more discerning and take responsibility for the information they consume and share,” Kajimoto said.

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“… the only way we will defeat this outbreak is for all countries to work together in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation. We are all in this together, and we can only stop it together … This is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.”

- Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General’s statement on the novel coronavirus, January 30

“The government will take action on those spreading fake news to instil fear among Malaysians and incite hatred among the races in Malaysia … Even though we believe in freedom of press, that does not mean the press should agitate people and cause people to be antagonistic towards each other. We will take action against those people.”

-Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia Prime Minister

“As an east Asian I can’t help but feel more and more uncomfortable. On the bus to work last week, as I sat down, the man next to me immediately scrambled to gather his stuff and stood up to avoid sitting next to me … The coronavirus is a human tragedy, so let’s not allow fear to breed hatred, intolerance and racism,” he wrote.

-Sam Phan, a British citizen and master’s student at the University of Manchester