Many Malaysians cannot tell the difference between real and fake stories

  • Nation
  • Friday, 23 Dec 2016

MCMC advocacy and outreach senior director Eneng Faridah Iskandar

CYBERJAYA: S. Sumita scores 10As in the PT3 exam. A jealous student rival then gets her boyfriend to tie her to a bunch of bricks and throw her into a river. It’s a great story and pictures of the happy girl with her family and that of her body being fished out of the river go viral.

There’s only one problem – it’s not true.

The only truth in the whole story is that Sumita did score straight As. Everything else is fake. There was no student rival and the body that was fished out of the river was an incident in Indonesia involving an African man.

Yet, there were many who believed the original fake post and passed it on, without asking questions. Welcome to the world of fake news.

The 15-year-old Sumita, very much alive, was shaken when her family began receiving a barrage of calls from relatives and friends to mourn her purported death.

“It became a big, big issue. My mother was shocked, my father was shocked. We don’t know who would do such a thing,” she said.

The tech-savvy teen has seen these viral messages before, but never did she expect that she would be the subject of one.

“I don’t know what to feel,” she said.

Most Malaysians are now getting their news off social media, but many still cannot tell the difference between real and fake news, according to the Malaysian Communi­cations and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

The MCMC held media literacy classes for about 900,000 people this year at 700 1Malaysia Inter­net Centres (PI1M), showing them examples of fake stories involving MH370, celebrity news and the US presidential election.

The agency was shocked to find out that most could not tell the difference between real or fake stories.

“The (fake) websites are not even as sophisticated as those in the United States, but as long as it reads like something from a newspaper, they can’t tell the difference,” said MCMC advocacy and outreach senior director Eneng Faridah Iskandar.

“People are beginning to wise up (to fake news) but it can’t happen without a focused education programme. We have a high user and penetration rate, but we are still not media-literate,” said Eneng Faridah, whose division engages mostly rural Internet users on how to discern legitimate sources online.

This is especially worrying because the 2016 Reuters Institute Digital News Report revealed that 69% of Malaysians get their news from social media. We are the second biggest social media news consumer in Asia Pacific behind Hong Kong.

Malaysia has one of the highest Internet and social media penetration rates in the region, but getting information from only one source could open Malaysians to a higher risk of misinformation, said the MCMC.

A study by the University of Washington found that people who consumed news from social media risked being trapped in an “echo chamber” because sites like Facebook tend to feed users news items similar to those they have read before.

This could limit variety of opinions and insights into issues, it said.

Even more alarmingly, a study by the Stanford University Graduate School of Education found that a shocking 80% of people with primary school education or higher were unable to tell if the content on their social media newsfeed was legitimate news, sponsored content or flat-out fabrications.

The situation is no different in Malaysia, where the MCMC said government agencies have had to actively counter false stories going viral on social media, primarily Facebook and WhatsApp.

Though reaction to fake news has not been as extreme as the shooting in Washington DC after a hoax claimed Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in a pizzeria there, Eneng Faridah feared it could further stoke extremist sentiments in Malaysia.

“We have already produced nine suicide bombers who were influenced by what they saw on Facebook,” she told The Star.

She related how yet another Facebook hoax, this time pictures of a Buddhist ceremony at the A’ Famosa Resort, was twisted into a religious dispute with some claiming the act contaminated the resort for other believers.

There have been claims of new currency notes in Malaysia, that there would be an increase in road tax, that EPF was blocking withdrawals and that there would be a nationwide power cut on Dec 18, among others,

Section 233 of the MCMC Act allows the commission to fine people who spread false information up to RM50,000 and jail them for a year but only four have been brought to court since 2010. Two of these cases involve PKR vice-president R. Sivarasa and artist Fahmi Reza.

Despite having blocked 5,044 websites this year, Eneng Faridah claimed none of the blocks were due to false information.

Considering most viral hoaxes were either health, religious or crime-related, she said the commission had no authoritative standing to verify or reject social media news; likening it to sending in MCMC to check whether a piece of chocolate was halal or not.

That duty, she said, was that of the relevant government agencies. MCMC was more interested in educating users to decide for themselves.

“We don’t want to be the Internet’s clearing house. People who consume the news also have roles in their subsequent actions,” Eneng Faridah said.

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