In Times of “Infodemic” Who To Trust, How To React?

THE LEADS ASIA | May 23, 2020

   Gatekeepers in the Internet-age is no longer professional journalists but the individual citizens, explains Bill Kovach in his book “Blur” . We as individual citizens are now responsible for gathering credible sources, “editing” and “publishing” on the Internet, Social Media and in text messages.

   Whilst the virus is pervasive across the globe, something else has increasingly been showing its strong diffusibility and persistence too — rumors, misleading coverages, and disinformation or the “fake news”. 

With the very first pandemic in the era of Social Media, the speed of rumors spreading across borders to cause discrimination and cybercrimes is faster than ever. Who could believe that one day we would seriously get fooled by such information as “Drink hot water and you’ll survive,” or “5G will make you vulnerable” ? In times of a crisis, it does happen. It happens everyday because people want to feel secure, eager to be told what to do.

The United Nations has warned of the risk of proliferating misinformation, disinformation and groundless rumors during a public health emergency, and that the infodemics “can hamper an effective public health response and create confusion and distrust among people”.

The Nature on April 30 published an article mentioning the Conspiracy Theories with the ongoing pandemic which has been the cause of discriminative sentiment towards Chinese people, arguing that “because some people tend to consume information within like-minded `echo chambers’ combating conspiracy theories remains a challenge”.

    In the trial of debunking, several news companies in the US, including Washington Post, New York Times and Buzzfeed are tackling with infodemic issues through respective fact-checking methods, and international investigative journalists are working on disinformation debunking. While being helpful to prevent so-called rumors from spreading, the painstaking fact-checks can almost never catch up with the speed of new rumors going viral beyond borders. It has been extremely difficult to find a remedy for “prebunking” all the misinformation and disinformation, as the situation changes drastically day by day.

   So what now? How do we, as citizens who select news and inform each other should act in this crisis under Infodemic? Here’s what the young professionals of THE LEADS ASIA came up through sharing what they know and discussing what to do.

● Dis-information: Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country.

● Mis-information: Information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm.

● Mal-information: Information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country.

(Information Disorder)

participants: 

Pempen | The Philippines

Jin | Malaysia

Junyang | Singapore

Seoyoung | South Korea

Amane | Japan

Facilitator: Ayano Sasaki 

Major Rumors Spread Across Asia


I mainly found 2 news articles that I thought were misleading and biased. 

At the end of January, I was in Hong Kong. I first acknowledged this rumor spreading from Qingdao, Mainland China. My friends from Mainland China told me with some links saying that “Koreans are escaping to Mainland China to avoid Coronavirus and to take advantage of free medical treatment in Mainland China,” because back then the situation was more severe in Korea than China. They also said this is why the airfare prices are rapidly going up.

But I didn’t think this was possible. First of all, Koreans need a visa to get into China, so no one can move that immediately just after the virus outbreak in Korea. Second, although they said that the Koreans are free-riding the Health care system of Chinese government, this does not make sense because it is also free in Korea to Korean citizens. Afterwards, it was proven the price change was due to the reduced schedule of flights and the increased number of Chineses who wanted to be back to China.

So at that time, I thought rumors were detrimental and could spread really fast despite its low credibility. But also, those who have no Korean friends to ask for an opinion, or cannot speak any foreign languages to access broader information may easily believe this.

    Second information I saw was that Japanese Granite Stone can kill the virus with its radiation. In Korea, there were a lot of articles about this, but when I searched in English, there were only a few articles.

I think Korea has a lot of general interest in Japan and that’s why criticizing Japan is always in the top news. So I’m always really curious if those news are true or not. Do you think this rumor was that popular in Japan too?

No, I don’t think so. I did see some people selling the stone on the online second-hand market, but I don’t think many people actually believed the rumor.

   Right after the disappearance of masks from drugstores, what’s next put on the shelf was called “Air Mask”. It’s said to be made of Chlorine Dioxide and can kill the viruses in the air. This was very popular in Japan and I’ve seen so many people using it. Some of them are for placing inside the room, but others looked like a pen or a badge that we can carry outside. Before this became so popular, my dad actually bought this home and I thought this was quite suspicious when I first saw it. 

If the chlorine dioxide was strong enough to kill the viruses in the space that immediately, it must be really harmful to the human body too. So I went on the internet to read journals and research papers talking about this, and then I found out that this is fake


Air Masks are scientifically proven effective only in the closed space.
(Picture retrieved on May 18)

It was reported that some people misunderstood this and put the Chlorine Dioxide directly into their hydrator to breath in, and they get hospitalized as a result. So it’s very harmful. Also in China, it was widely reported that this was not legit but rather dangerous.

Different Environments, Different Echo-Chambers


There’re lots of remedies that people randomly share here in Malaysia too — like how sunbathing will kill the virus.

The worst case I saw was that even our leaders were listening to the rumors online and telling the public what to do. One of our health ministers said on TV that drinking hot water would kill the virus, which later got proven to be misinformation. 

The main medium they use for sharing news is WhatsApp. People usually have many group chat rooms where people post some articles written by anybody, many of which don’t cite an appropriate source. Or even if they do, they take people’s quotes out of the context and then mix with their own ideas and biases. 

Yesterday, I received this “fake news” that vegetarians are less susceptible to contracting COVID-19, even citing WHO officer’s quote saying that if we were constantly eating meat it would lead to a future epidemic. Although this is an actual quote, the article title says “Vegetarians are safe under Covid-19,” which is not true and misleading

So far it’s more of a “self-check and balance” thing for individuals, but generally the government is also doing a pretty good job publicly informing people, and going after  those who spread the fake news, as Malaysia is now going through different phases of  movement control order24 people were recently arrested for spreading fake news to scam other people. 

It is interesting to see how news is perceived differently, well, as an outsider. People in my parent’s generation (50s or 60s), they just read the news and believe what’s written there, but almost never take the initiative to check. My host mother in Japan has been telling me stories about Beijing which she obtained by watching YouTube videos, which has “anti-Chinese” sentiments. At the same time, my aunt who also watches Youtube videos sounded quite “pro-China”, continuously telling me how great the Chinese government is doing internationally around the world, helping other countries in need fighting Covid-19.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Our social circles are very stratified, indeed. But generally I think it could be good and bad depending on which circles. Because one information is very much constrained in the echo-chamber, so among those who did not have chances to know how to distinguish information, this cannot produce anything, but sharing information among those who are willing to have discussion and judge can also be a good thing and are more likely to influence people in a good way.

 Spreading news on WhatsApp is prevalent here in Singapore as well, especially amongst the older generations. There were 2 pieces of news I came across, both of which are related to Malaysia.

One of them in March was about this one chicken farm in Pontian, Malaysia was affected by a mysterious bird flu and the people are selling them to Singapore, which was debunked subsequently by the Singaporean authorities. But this news was spreading all over Singapore telling people not to buy chickens and even to avoid eating chickens outside because they might be infected. 

Another was also in early March. This was a voice message, discouraging people from visiting this mall in the city. Given the time when the cases had not been grown elsewhere yet, people were afraid of Chinese citizens. So this man was telling how many people are in this mall and urging people to avoid coming at any cost. This was also later on proven false

I find it really interesting that a lot of people in Singapore are always looking at Malaysian news, maybe we have a lot more “spices” to add to your news. Do you think that the foreign workers in Singapore face sort of discrimination due to COVID-19? Because here in Malaysia, the Rohingya migrant workers are facing a lot of discriminations online, and some were forced to go back to their home country. 

Now that everything is closed-off, I hardly see any foreign workers and there’s no visible xenophobia. But I think the media is doing a lot of things to assuage this issue, because with the recent rise of cases in Singapore, one type of fake news has been circulating. 

On the official Singaporean news we receive everyday at 3pm, they give 2 kinds of numbers — the absolute numbers for the new cases of Covid-19, and the number of Singaporeans with permanent residence within them. Yesterday there were 700 overall cases with only 1 Singaporean of permanent resident. The remaining are foreign workers, living closed-off in their foreign workers’ dorms. This has really come into an issue about how Singaporean firms are really treating foreign workers while cramming them there. 

On WhatsApp, there’s a video widely shared of a hanging-dead foreign worker. The message is basically “Look, this is the outcome of our maltreatment to the foreign workers”. This was later debunked as having happened elsewhere, not in Singapore. There were similar video clips of foreign workers, fighting against themselves or showing horrible food that they have been given, but all of these were taken in other places. 

For Singapore, this might be malicious. Our Law and Home minister has also spoken about many incidents taken around the world, where so-called “fake news” within a short span of time erupted into riots, causing mass hysteria and mass fear. That’s why he said that Singapore has to move very quickly because even within a span of 2 to 5 hours, something major might happen. 

Foreign workers are of course seeing the same news as we are. By seeing Indian nationals hanging himself or people fighting because of their food, they might cause an issue out of nothing. So even if they were not necessarily maltreated, they see all these news and falsely believe that they are maltreated and might start a riot.

More Positive Information
To Combat Fake News

To tackle this, the media chose to give more true information rather than sensoring, in light of free speech. The media have been talking a lot about solidarity with the foreign workers, some of them were put into the spotlight and portrayed as heroes. Few days ago, it was this news about an Indian immigrant worker infected by Covid-19 sharing his story of how he was delighted and felt safe when he was put into the hospital which he built as a worker. Later on, the Prime Minister specifically highlighted this story in his speech.

There was also a story when Malaysia restricted the movement by closing its border, many were very concerned because a lot of Malaysians were commuting to Singapore to work and suddenly had no place to return and to stay. Then the media is highlighting touching stories of how Singaporeans open their homes to Malaysian nationals to stay.

So I think now that a lot of news is coming out about the maltreatment of foreign workers, they need to balance it with the news about solidarity. 

Photo by Polina Zimmerman on Pexels.com

 I think there are a lot of similar things happening in the Philippines regarding misinformation, but I just wanted to talk about two things that are more unique to the Philippines’ context.

The first is about the prison population; which is quite reminiscent of Junyang’s story about foreign populations in Singapore causing the second wave. Here in the Philippines, the number has been decreasing slightly, but there has not been enough conversation about the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus among the prison population. I think this is a very significant issue because the Philippines, like any other developing countries in Southeast Asia, has always been overcrowded. It was not until about a half month ago, when the prison national bureau requested the guards to stay within the prison in order to prevent any transmittal of the virus. But I think that’s too little, too late. But at the same time, talking about releasing them to the public is also raising another issue. 

The second is militancy. I think all of us know that in America, people have recently protested against the Stay-at-Home orders. But what’s interesting is that obviously the Philippines is very close to America both culturally and historically, but when recently there was a so-called “anti-social civil disturbance” in which people gather and protest against the lockdown rules, mainly because of the lack of support that they government has given, unlike America where people protest for their individual liberty and own rights.  
 
From my perspective, I think there has not been that much fake news being prevalent in society. But going back to my second point, how the government is using this protest as an excuse to push a harsher law, I think that can be one “fake news” because they are using a justification for something that’s not a riot but a mere fabrication, and the way that they introduce new laws as a direct response to this “fabricated threat” is a bit like how Trump has been coming up with Conspiracy Theories. A lot of my friends are organizing to say we should not be supporting undemocratic rules.

So I think the media should be putting more facts out there; What the actual reason for the closure of news media is and the passage of this new law, letting people with no voice in society to have voices for us.

Intentions Behind Malicious Actions


The news I shared were all proven to be false, but the question is, what was the intention behind them? First, about the poultry farm with bird flu; the reason this news became widespread was maybe because of someone’s self-interest in spreading the news that chickens coming from Malaysia aren’t safe. Or maybe because they want people to go for their local production. The second news on this particular mall in KL with Chinese people; maybe it was the competitors who are facing the falls of sales already trying to dissuade people from coming to this mall. 

Also, when I heard people calling Covid-19 as “Asian Virus”, of course I felt upset about it, but I guess it’s just human nature. I saw a lot of people in Hong Kong saying they want to avoid Mainland Chinese and even few restaurants refused to serve mainlanders because of the virus, but if we go to other regions in the world people will not distinguish us being Korean, Chinese Japanese or any other. So I think if we really complain about being called Asian Virus, we also have to think about our attitude towards mainland Chinese people. 

In March, this one famous Japanese actress was campaigning for Louis Vuitton and her pictures were advertised on Instagram. Soon after it went viral because so many were commenting racist stuff in English, calling her “Corona”. I thought that even with those who claim to be the nationals of developed countries with a full respect for human rights, this time their behavior was very primitive and immature. So I agree with Seoyoung, it might be just human nature to act like that under an emergency. Also, when I think about staying in Europe, for example, being called as Chinese, I thought it is also wrong to deny the comment and insist on my nationality. Because by doing so, I would be just as the same as those who gave me the racist comments. 

From the beginning I was moving across Asian countries and observed something really interesting. From what I saw, it was not “Asian virus” as Amane has described but was more like “inter-Asian” discrimination. In January, I flew from Mainland China to Macau with another Chinese friend of mine, then subsequently to Malaysia where there was already a dissentiment about Chinese. So my friend had to pretend that he was a Singaporean the entire time. And then, we flew to Thailand, surprisingly with no such sentiment going on yet. After that, we went to India. In the beginning, there was still no problem, the people there were still optimistic about the virus. But as the time went by, people started getting more worried. When my friend was waiting for a bus, there was a kid shouting “Coronavirus” at him. But my friend shared his fear together with the kid and eventually they took a selfie together. So I thought, at the end of the day, we all share the same fear. 

I was thinking while listening, that we can also look at the intentions behind these actions. When, for instance, Trump says “Chinese Virus”, he has another intention behind it, that is to politically attack China. But let’s say your friend who took a selfie with kids in India, had the worst case scenario. What if he actually had the Coronavirus while on the plane and he transmitted to the kid while taking a selfie? It would be an uproar, right? If you are now allowed to travel abroad, would you want to sit next to an European or a Chinese? I think the answer would be inclined to the latter, given the current situations in Europe. The people being afraid of and discriminating against those who come from China or Korea when there was an outbreak, it was more of self-preservation and security. I think the Covid-19 really exposed us to face the reality, health care systems and politics beyond the racial stereotypes. 

What To Trust Now?

I often feel that those labelled as fake news are not necessarily the “fake” news, but are just misleading in the contexts. Also I recently saw a research arguing that sometimes the denial of the fake news can help spread the fake news faster.  For example, by denying the statement “the toilet paper is in short supply,” you are actually helping it to be widely spread. 

What about the “fake news” released by the governments? My friend in India who owns a theme park and thus stays very close to government officials, told me the government has to worry about their political future, which is why they are likely to hide numbers and cases. I think it could happen anywhere. Not just the people spreading the fake news but the government themselves could be misinforming people for their self-interest. In the beginning, even the WHO was also releasing wrong information because they did “not have enough information”.

We need to think about how to find the balance between authorities admitting they were spreading misinformation due to the lack of information, and with the influential people saying something false to get stepped down because of that one action.

Photo by ThisIsEngineering on Pexels.com

What do we do, when the people who are supposed to be the one we trust and rely on, are the ones in doubt? Who do we trust? authorities? friends? or Yourself?

We decided to bring this question to “How, Who, and What to trust?” to an expert. 

For the upcoming article on “I see, We see News”, we conduct an interview with a professional specializing in this area. 

Edited by Kaori Kohyama

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