Commentary: Fake news and Covid-19: Sharing is not necessarily caring

Updated: Jul 17

Helmy Haja Mydin


More than 90,000 people have died from the novel coronavirus outbreak.”

A cure is being withheld by forces within the Malaysian government in order to kill off Malaysians.”


These inaccurate statements — fake news, lies, call them what you will — were made on the “Ibu Yati” Facebook account in January. They’re just two of many examples of misinformation that spread like wildfire across social media in Malaysia, far more swiftly than that of the hitherto unknown coronavirus strain that’s since been christened as Covid-19.

The above statements are unique in that they were made by a journalist, who’s since been charged in court for knowingly making statements with the intention of causing fear among the public. “Ibu Yati”, or Wan Noor Hayati Wan Alias, was charged under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code that carries a maximum two years of imprisonment, or a fine, or both, if convicted.


However government intervention in curbing information is not always a good thing — censorship and freedom of speech have been in a tug of war since time immemorial. While halting the spread of fake news may seem straightforward on paper, the motives and tactics of the state are not necessarily in tandem with the best interests of the public.


The story of the late Dr Li Wenliang is a recent example. Having identified a new mysterious illness affecting a number of patients, his warnings via social media allegedly led to visits by officials from the Wuhan health authority, demanding to know why he had shared such information. He was later compelled to sign a statement that his warning constituted ‘illegal behaviour’.


The report in The New York Times went on to describe efforts by authorities to silence doctors for raising red flags whilst downplaying the dangers in public. These included suggestions by city officials that the virus had been stopped at its source and clusters were limited — helpful if true, but disastrous as they led to insufficient public health measures.

Finding the equilibrium between freedom and censorship is no easy task. This has been made more challenging with the increasing ubiquity of social media over the past decade — compare the pandemonium caused by Covid-19 vs SARS. The speed of dissemination and the anonymity that social media provides have led to platforms acting as avenues for the liberation of opinions without corresponding personal responsibility and liability.

Fake news can only be curbed if we understand how it spreads. Inaccurate information and rumours have significant impact on issues as diverse as election results to stock market fluctuations. More latterly, it affects the manner in which we respond to national emergencies, both perceived and real.


The consequence is not only on the individual — it is not inaccurate to say that in some circumstances, government responses are dictated by what is being circulated in social media as opposed to facts on the ground. This can lead to misallocation of resources, which will ultimately influence outcome in a negative fashion.


While fake news is just one of many factors that affect sentiment, it plays a disproportionate role. The social media analytics company Berkshire Media conducted a public sentiment analysis on the Covid-19 with a sample size of 500,000 Malaysians on social media. According to its Chief Executive Officer, Shahid Shayaa, there were four waves of fear and panic in Malaysia. These were affected by domestic & international news, netizens sharing unverified content, posts from Government official accounts and instigative posts by political supporters, often with negative and misleading headlines.


People also react far more readily to fake news — a study unearthed the fact that fake news travels significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than truth, especially when related to political news. The authors investigated approximately 126,000 stories between 2006 to 2017 that were tweeted by around three million people more than 4.5 million times.

The authors went on to note that “People thrive on novelty. Novelty attracts human attention, contributes to productive decision-making and encourages information-sharing. In essence, it can update our understanding of the world. When information is novel, it is not only surprising, but also more valuable — both from an information theory perspective (it provides the greatest aid to decision-making), and from a social perspective (it conveys social status that one is ‘in the know’, or has access to unique ‘inside’ information)”.


Adding a dash of political intrigue alongside a sprinkle of conspiracy theories to the story of a new virus that has the potential to alter humanity’s future allows for easy consumption of fake news, especially when involving governments with trust deficits. The sheer number of data points and sources of information is also overwhelming to the normal human being, especially if cultural and generational gaps are taken into account. Those above the age of 65 for example, are seven times more likely to share fake news than those between the ages of 18-29.


This has led to some taking matters into their own hands. Many Malaysian doctors have gone online to share and disseminate information in tandem with the communications machinery of the Ministry of Health.


One medical student, Chen Liang, has even gone so far as to coordinate a team of data scientists, medical professionals, designers and developers in setting up the Corona Tracker initiative (www.coronatracker.com). “I’ve asked myself, how can I contribute? I want to educate the public, help them know what they should and shouldn’t do. I want to stop them from being fooled by fake news,” he said. “We know that the public wants a nice narrative, they want information that’s packaged nicely. Therefore besides collecting data, we prepare articles, infographics, videos and interactive sessions. This tracker will provide a more definitive approach on how to handle any contingency with less anxiety and stress.”

Individual efforts like these are very welcomed, but would only work well with appropriate support from both government and the private sector. Platform providers struggle between corporate profitability, privacy issues and their responsibilities to both the state and society. Platforms have difficulty in weeding out fake news. A combination of approaches are needed — from unleashing the power of machine learning on big data to engaging third parties and the public to fact-check and report suspicious materials.


SY Lau, Tencent’s Senior Executive Vice President, highlighted the importance of spreading real news and dispelling rumours in real-time. ‘At Tencent, Fact Check, a product on Tencent News, has launched a dedicated section called ‘Real-time Facts and Rumours Concerning 2019 nCoV’. This enables users to check if an item is true or fake.’ The experienced and well-respected digital media guru went on to add that ‘in addition, ‘110’, the Chinese police’s Mini Program on WeChat, has launched a means of access for users to report illegal behaviours such as charity frauds and those starting or spreading malicious rumours.’


Some may argue that even these efforts are too little, too late. As the adage says, prevention is better than cure. One way to prevent panic and anxiety over health issues is by increasing health literacy — ensuring that large swathes of the population have access to information that can be used to protect and improve their well-being.


The vast majority of medical information is too technical for public consumption. This makes it all the more important that those who seek to enlighten the public use easy and jargon-free language. For example, it would make far more sense to talk about how easy it is for Covid-19 to spread instead of highlighting its R0 (R naught) values.


Governments alone will not be able to put out all the fires of fake news. Wan Azrin Izani, a health promotion practitioner has likened the war against fake news to asymmetrical warfare. “Look at how Vietnam defeated the Americans. A smaller, less tech-savvy army utilises its increased maneuverability and can think outside the box.” Wan, the former Corporate Communication Director of the Malaysian Health Promotion Board believes strongly in social media entities and non-governmental organisations being made partners in health promotion initiatives as this will help navigate red tape and bureaucracies as well as help engage those on the ground.


This article assumes that the spread of fake news related to Covid-19 is a consequence of misinformation (honest mistakes) as opposed to disinformation (deliberate sharing of incorrect information). It also does not take into account the role of bots and fake accounts for message and cluster amplifications, which may very well be part of a tactical modus operandi to destabilise governments.


Even if these are placed aside, it is clear that fake news is here to stay and is an important variable to consider when coming up with public health strategies. Its influence will become even more widespread when the next epidemic hits us (a question of when, not if) and will continue to wag the dog as we increasingly live our lives in the digital world.


Governments have the responsibility of utilising the apparatus of the state in ensuring public safety, and should have the authority to implement greater control measures in both the real and digital world should the situation warrant it. However, emergencies are oftimes capitalised by rulers to ensure greater concentration of power. Ceding control after a crisis is over is of paramount, just as proactive measures are taken in tandem with corporate and public players before crises occur in the first place.


At the end of the day, it all starts with the individual. Taking a pause is perhaps the most essential tool in a fast-paced world that rewards instant gratification — take the time to look into the source, identify things that are too good (or too bad) to be true, read that article in full or verify the credibility of its author — before passing it on to someone else. Sharing might be caring but as the aphorism goes, ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intentions’.


This article was originally published in The Malay Mail Online.

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