Of ‘Misinfodemics’ and ‘Disinfodemics’: The shape of false news in the Covid-19 era

Of ‘Misinfodemics’ and ‘Disinfodemics’

The shape of false news in the Covid-19 era  

By Jamie Menon | April 27 2020, 2:20 PM SGT

In the last few years, the term ‘fake news’ has come into the global lexicon.

Famously coined by a popular world leader, the now ubiquitous term has been arguably most associated with political interference in recent years, specifically attempts by bad actors to influence voter opinions and sway election outcomes. Governments, academia, tech companies, and civil society groups globally have been working to mitigate the harmful impacts of false news.

Today, with the world grapples with a previously unknown virus, Covid-19 has become the new frontier for ‘fake news’, with serious implications for health, security and governance. With much unknown about it and a vaccine still 12-18 months away according to experts, people are rightfully anxious and more vulnerable than ever.

As pandemic news dominates new headlines, social media content, and family chat groups, experts have noted that high levels of patently ‘fake news’ is proliferating globally.

False information is generally grouped into two broad categories. Misinformation is spread unknowingly, without ill motives, although incorrect – this includes popularly shared ‘COVID-19 facts’ include drinking warm water or alcohol, eating garlic, and taking hot baths to prevent infection, as well as suggestions that 5G networks can transmit the virus. Disinformation, on the other hand, is when false information is knowingly shared by actors with malicious intent. This includes promoting fraudulent cures, counterfeit medications and health equipment, and blaming specific groups or countries for spreading the virus. It has also emerged that some state or political actors are stirring unrest for political gains.

With a good proportion of the world, including in Asia, under some kind of lockdown or social distancing restriction, people are increasingly facing isolation and insecurity. Online engagement has replaced real-life interaction, likely causing people to increasingly trust information from friends, family, even news media, without scrutiny. Unclear or confusing messaging from officials and leaders, coupled with a fast-evolving situation, adds to the confusion. A perfect storm for fake news.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has named this parallel threat a “poison” and a “misinfo-demic – a dangerous epidemic of misinformation about COVID-19”, which poses as much harm as the virus with its conspiracy theories, false health cures, harmful health advice and hate speech.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for a unified response to address the pandemic as whole, including combating misinformation. Working closely with digital experts, its global information campaigns provide updates on transmissions, latest scientific and medical information, as well active debunking of popular myths and misconceptions around COVID-19.

Technology companies behind popular global platforms and services are working at pace and in partnership with governments and organizations around the world to promote information from experts, including the WHO, to ensure netizens are informed and safe. For example, Google is prioritizing results from authoritative sources and removing and demonetizing advertising that tries to exploit the pandemic, Facebook is working to limit harmful misinformation across its platforms, including removing dangerous conspiracy theories debunked by experts, while Twitter is focused of  preventing potential platform manipulation anddirecting users towards legitimate information and healthy conversations.  The onslaught of false news continues as technological and human interventions try to keep pace.

The Response

Governments across the world are dealing with this “disinfodemic” in different ways. The UK government has taken the fight to the field with a specialized counter-disinformation unit comprising cross-functional experts from government and the tech sector. Supported by a Rapid Response team, its multi-pronged effort to counter and correct includes social media engagement, working with platforms to take down content, and public health campaigns to get the facts out.

Across Asia though, a blunter approach is taking shape. Widespread citizen arrests for spreading ‘fake news’ have made the news in India, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, to name a few.

While using legislation to address misinformation is not a new development in Asia, there is concern that the COVID-19 pandemic could result in an overly wide net being cast by authorities who are now ‘protecting public health’ instead of ‘clamping down on speech’.

Human rights groups have observed that many caught in the net have been accused under broad emergency laws or existing digital laws with vague wording, which are also commonly used to crack down on political dissent. They say that many are being arrested for criticizing national approaches to handling COVID-19 or posting misleading information unknowingly. Thailand, for example, has passed a state-of-emergency decree that when used with other digital laws can impose heavy jail sentences and fines for sharing misinformation online about the virus that will “instigate fear”. The lack of due process and legislative rigour raises serious concerns from legal experts as well.

Strategies for Today and the Future

Disinformation and digital platform abuse will remain serious concerns for governments, society and citizens long after this pandemic has passed.  In Asia, governments can consider alternative approaches to blunt legislative tools. 

First –  governments must take the lead to communicate  – clearly, consistently and often. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo recently called for transparency in the country’s COVID-19 fight, a distinct shift from his previous position of withholding information to prevent panic. An information vacuum is a dangerous thing in ordinary times, more so when people are fearful for their lives and livelihoods. More reliable and accessible official information will help drown out the impacts of fake news and build trust in the long term.

Second – close collaboration with digital platforms and servicesis critical to ensuring that harmful content and false news that endangers health and safety is removed or inaccessible. Technology companies already have a slew of policies and programmes in place. Government information and communication efforts will benefit significantly from better data insights and amplification of official messaging by working with widely used platforms. 

Third – media and digital literacymust be a long-term priority. Those who understand how to better assess information and practise cyber vigilance will be far less susceptible to false news. Cooperation between governments, academia, tech companies and news publishers are critical here.

The UN’s Secretary General Guttierrez has said “trust is a vaccine”.  For now, we can each do our part to pause and consider the source, facts and format of information we receive, especially before sharing with others.




Image credits: Getty Images

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