Malaysia’s Covid-19 Fake News Targeted Government Action, Community Spread: ISIS

By CodeBlue | 03 September 2020

An ISIS Malaysia paper attributed 91% of coronavirus-related misinformation in Malaysia to “troll or provoke with no discernible political motive — or an expression of legitimate belief”.

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KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 3 — Misinformation on Malaysia’s Covid-19 outbreak predominantly pertained to government policy or action, and community spread of the virus, according to a paper by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

The think tank’s analysis of the Sebenarnya.my online government fact-checker on 363 coronavirus-related false claims between January and June 15 this year found that “authority action” and “community spread” comprised 70 per cent, or 254 of 363 false claims.

False claims that the ISIS Malaysia policy brief coded as “authority action” included a claim that Terengganu’s police chief had warned about the implementation of an Enhanced Movement Control Order (EMCO) in Dungun. The ISIS Malaysia paper also cited Sebenarnya.my’s “fact-check” quoting the Ministry of Health (MOH) as saying that cancer treatment was not being delayed because of Covid-19 or hospital closures.

Despite MOH’s assertion last April that cancer surgeries in public hospitals had not been halted during the Covid-19 outbreak, former Health director-general Dr Ismail Merican has previously raised concern about the postponement of surgeries supposedly deemed “elective”, including cancer operations, in both public and private hospitals in the Klang Valley.

False claims coded by the ISIS Malaysia paper as “community spread” refers to instances of inaccurate claims of positive Covid-19 cases in certain areas like banks, supermarkets, or shopping centres.

Graphic from ISIS Malaysia’s “The Covid-19 Infodemic in Malaysia: Scale, Scope, and Policy Responses” policy brief published in August 2020.

Other types of false claims made during the Covid-19 outbreak in Malaysia related to public preparedness (hoarding, non-compliance with physical distancing), scams, Covid-19 deaths, general medical advice (health remedies, diagnostics, effects of Covid-19), public figures, Covid-19 transmission, stocks of essential goods, and Covid-19 origins and conspiracy theories.

“Standing out in this dataset is how there were very little false claims on Covid-19’s ‘origins and/or conspiracy theories’. In fact, the dataset only included one clarification on a claim that Covid-19, under the microscope, looks like a creature,” wrote Harris Zainul and Farlina Said in ISIS Malaysia’s “The Covid-19 Infodemic in Malaysia: Scale, Scope, and Policy Responses” policy brief published last month.

“Notably, there were no fact-checked claims coded for ‘vaccine development and availability’.”

WhatsApp was the most popular medium for misinformation at 39 per cent of Sebenarnya.my fact-checks, followed by Facebook at 34 per cent. ISIS Malaysia also found 86 false claims related to Covid-19 that posed as being the source of authority figures, with 74 per cent of them purporting to come from the government.

Graphic from ISIS Malaysia’s “The Covid-19 Infodemic in Malaysia: Scale, Scope, and Policy Responses” policy brief published in August 2020.

Harris and Farlina attributed 91 per cent of coronavirus-related misinformation in Malaysia to “troll or provoke with no discernible political motive — or an expression of legitimate belief”.

“Notably, how this category of apparent motivation merges two opposing ends of the spectrum of intentions highlights the complexity in inferring good or malicious intent based solely on content,” said Harris and Farlina.

They noted that the effects of misinformation were the same, regardless if the false news were spread because of intentional trolling or because of genuine mistaken belief.

“Nevertheless, the likelihood of rumours and/or false information circulating due to genuine belief ought not to be discounted. For example, it is conceivable that a bystander witnessing a team of health care professionals, decked in full personal protective equipment (PPE) gear could have mistaken it for a Covid-19 positive patient being in that area.

“Similarly, bystanders witnessing police lines and police and checkpoints being rolled out could have mistaken these as a preparatory step towards a full EMCO being implemented in that locality soon.”

Graphic from ISIS Malaysia’s “The Covid-19 Infodemic in Malaysia: Scale, Scope, and Policy Responses” policy brief published in August 2020.

Official communications on Covid-19 come from regular press conferences by Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah and Senior Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob that are broadcast live, as well as MOH’s National Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre (CPRC) that is anchored by Sebenarnya.my. CPRC has various channels for users to report or verify false information via its website, Telegram, telephone calls, short message service (SMS) or email. Besides traditional media outlets, the government has also used social media platforms, SMS notifications, and dedicated websites to disseminate information on coronavirus.

However, ISIS Malaysia noted that rumours still proliferated despite the government’s communication strategy on the pandemic.

“Perhaps rather than reducing that this is due to no-gooders who intend to troll or provoke, it would be more worthwhile to consider how it might be a symptom of a lack of quality information on the Covid-19 pandemic, and the consequent anxieties and concerns shared by the public.”

Harris Zainul and Farlina Said, “The Covid-19 Infodemic in Malaysia: Scale, Scope, and Policy Responses”

Harris and Farlina pointed out, for example, that the government had introduced the Movement Control Order (MCO) last March with a mere two-day notice, while the first and subsequent phases of the nationwide lockdown had shifting requirements, practice guidelines, and standard operating procedures (SOPs).

“Taking this together with how breaching the MCO guidelines would have led to some sort of punitive action being taken, it is no surprise that rumours had proliferated in an environment where information was lacking (there were 54 false claims coded ‘authority action’ in March 2020, the first month the MCO was in effect),” said Harris and Farlina.

They further criticised police investigations against media practitioners during the pandemic.

“Admittedly free speech is not absolute, but pursuing legal action against members of the media is unsettling as it could lead to self-censorship in newsrooms, affecting the media’s capability to act as a watchdog for public interest.”

The writers opined that the Sebenarnya.my model of addressing misinformation was incomplete without a robust fact-checking environment, as the government fact-checker’s model depended on a “binary approach to truth” by using official statements to debunk false information.

“This means that complicated information forming the claims could not be addressed adequately, particularly if the truth-value is not binary. Secondly, as the statements are from official sources, the statements could conjure a conflict of interest.

“Journalistic standards would be needed to complement efforts by Sebenarnya.my, particularly to address complicated false information semantics,” Harris and Farlina said.

They recommended enacting a new law to specifically regulate false content related to Covid-19. Such legislation, according to the ISIS Malaysia analysts, should only punish disinformation that causes actual harm, so that only those who intentionally create and share false information to cause harm will be prosecuted, while those who are honestly mistaken will not.

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