HAVE you ever wondered who starts viral misinformation, and who spreads it?
In May this year, the BBC did a report narrowing it down to seven types of people who spread fake news: joker, scammer, politician, conspiracy theorist, insider, relative and celebrity.
Think about it. You probably would have come across posts by all these types of personalities, even here in Malaysia.
Not everyone can tell when a post is meant to be funny or a joke. When it comes to scams and conspiracy theorists, it’s prudent to bear in mind that freedom of speech does not accord you the freedom to lie.
Yet, very few people think they are committing any wrongdoing by creating a funny meme or sharing false news, rumours or misinformation.
Relatives are huge culprits when it comes to forwarding posts because they claim to be worried about their loved ones. “Just in case, ” they say, that there may be some truth to the post – no matter how ludicrous!
Have you had kin forwarding you a message that says “cosmic rays would cross Earth from 12.30 to 3.30am”, advising people to keep their phones switched off during this time as it could be very harmful for the body?
Yes, those sort of nonsense posts.
How about the celebrity who is happy to support a cause or theory, without researching or studying the science behind it? The power or right to express one’s opinions without censorship or restraint is something to be lauded in many countries, however one must be careful and practice responsibility especially when he or she has a slew of followers who are happy to emulate them.
Celebrities and politicians who have thousands of followers on social media need to be extra careful they don’t amplify misleading claims. Yet, experts agree that these people are “super-spreaders” of fake news and conspiracy theories during times of crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic.
Researchers from Queensland University in Australia blamed stars, such as Woody Harrelson and Wiz Khalifa, in a study probing how far-fetched fringe Internet theories (5G and Covid-19) become frontpage news.
“It’s one thing to post this from a conspiracy account that’s got a few hundred followers, but once you get major celebrities with literally millions of followers on Twitter or Facebook talking about this, even just dismissively, obviously it reaches a much, much larger audience, ” said Axel Bruns, a professor with the university’s Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre, in the online presentation News Diffusion on Twitter: Comparing the Dissemination Careers for Mainstream and Marginal News.
Take for example Amanda Holden, a judge on hit TV show Britain’s Got Talent who has close to two million Twitter followers.
During the lockdown in Britain, she added a petition calling on the government to stop 5G. “Symptoms of 5G exposure include respiratory problems, flu-like symptoms (temperature rises, fever, headaches), pneumonia, ” the petition said. “Very much like the effects of the coronavirus.”
When telecommunications group BT later got hit by a wave of attacks including arson and abuse, Holden took down the tweet and said she accidentally shared the petition. But the damage has already been done.
In Malaysia, actor Zed Zaidi was accused of spreading fake news and stoking panic over the coronavirus way back in January. He tweeted a picture of himself donning a face mask along with a screenshot bearing false claims that all countries have banned Chinese tourists except Malaysia, which he shared on Twitter and Facebook.
In February, Malaysian Artistes Association (Seniman) president was charged with fearmongering at the time.
A study conducted by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute in April found that politicians, celebrities and other influential figures were responsible for producing a fifth of all misinformation about coronavirus – but the engagement with those posts is staggering, accounting for 69% of all social media engagement with misleading content.
Rather than spread lies, celebrities with large fanbases should use their fame to spread awareness and goodwill instead. Take the cue from these two ladies who have reached the pinnacle of their careers.
In April, the country’s No.1 singer Datuk Seri Siti Nurhaliza Tarudin, for example, took the initiative to set up a fund to help the frontliners and Malaysians impacted by the pandemic.
Datuk Nicol David actively encouraged Malaysians to stay focused on the positives and keep our mind and body active during these trying times. During the MCO, the former squash champ shared some tips on how to keep fit at home with her fans on her Facebook page, in a set of cardio exercises which includes jumping jacks, skipping, lunges, squats and jogging in place.
Voice for the people
Online activist network Avaaz (meaning “voice”) has over 60 million members in 194 countries, including Malaysia (more than 248,000 members).
Such numbers empower millions of people to take action on pressing global, regional and national issues – from corruption and poverty to conflict and climate change.
According to its website, Avaaz takes action – signing petitions, funding media campaigns and direct actions – to ensure that the views and values of the world’s people inform the decisions that affect us all.
One of the things it takes very seriously is disinformation, misinformation and fake news, all of which have the potential to change public opinion and amplify an issue.
In February, the Avaaz team began detecting and monitoring widespread misinformation online about Covid-19. Its investigative team set out to analyse and assess the efficacy of Facebook’s efforts to combat what it billed as an “infodemic” on its main platform, and found that Facebook was rife with bogus cures and conspiracy theories that remain on the platform long enough to put millions of people at risk.
Representing only the tip of the misinformation iceberg, the study (https://tinyurl.com/avaazfakenews) showed the content that the Avaaz team sampled and analysed (104 coronavirus-related articles) were shared over 1.7 million times on Facebook and viewed an estimated 117 million times.
Avaaz concluded that Facebook is an epicentre of coronavirus misinformation, and the platform must do more to protect its users from this infodemic.
One example cited was a harmful post claiming that one way to rid the body of the virus was to drink a lot of water and gargle with water, salt or vinegar, which was shared over 31,000 times before eventually being taken down after Avaaz flagged it for Facebook.
But the other 2,611 clones of that false and misleading post remain on the platform with over 92,246 interactions. Most of these cloned posts have no warning labels from Facebook.
If you are a Facebook user, ask yourself how often you have verified a post before sharing it on your own feed. Have you been guilty of sharing news – or even jokes – that may have resulted in others being misled?
Truth be told
Closer to home, Sebenarnya.my was launched in 2017 for the public to check on the authenticity of news spread through social websites.
The portal was developed by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and has for the last three years been among efforts taken by the Government to curb the spread of false news and ensure the public receives real news.
During this time, it received about 10,000 public tip-offs on unverified information/news (an average of 240 monthly), according to MCMC Network Security Monitoring Division’s New Media Department spokeswoman Nurul Maidatul Aqma Adam.
Funnily enough, 96% of these tip-offs were on news items that have already been addressed in the portal, but users did not bother to search for them beforehand.
In total, there have been 2,557 Sebenarnya.my posts debunking fake news.
To give you an idea of the seemingly innocuous nature of misinformation, the most popular post in the last three months was Pelajar Tingkatan 1 hingga 4 akan kembali ke sekolah pada 12 Julai 2020 adalah palsu (Form 1 to 4 students returning to school on 12 July 2020 is fake) which began as a rumour in June but was refuted by the Prime Minister’s Department.
Nurul Maidatul shared that there is a dedicated team in Sebenarnya.my to manage and fact-check unverified or fake news shared on social media.
“A committee has also been established particularly for inter-agency coordination in managing unverified news/content online. Through the collaboration and co-regulation mechanism, the respective Ministries or Government agencies play an active role in detecting and monitoring the spread of viral fake news/information involving matters within the scope of their subject matter and jurisdiction, ” she said, adding that they would issue official statements explaining or refuting any false or misleading news involving their respective agencies and Ministries, as well as matters or issues that are on their subject matter and jurisdiction.
The rebuttal, clarification or explanatory statements made by the relevant agency or Ministry will then be published on their official website or social media pages, and later picked up and shared by Sebenarnya.my.
The portal also publishes articles on how to use the Internet positively and responsibly, besides conducting awareness campaigns which are mostly through advocacy and outreach initiatives such as The Truth Campaign, Klik Dengan Bijak, and Malaysian ICT Volunteer (MIV).
An investigation this year pertaining to the spread of fake news related to Covid-19 found that misinformation was spread mostly by those aged between 19 and 39 years, followed by those in the 40-69 age group.
According to Sebenarnya.my analytics, the most popular source of unverified news is WhatsApp (67%), followed by Facebook (21%), then blogs, Twitter and Telegram.
From 2018 until June 2020, there have been 111 cases investigated by MCMC in relation to the spread of fake news, with eight people facing charges.
Do you fall in any of these groups?
According to Nurul Maidatul, being a digital citizen requires one to more than just consume information.
“One must also be vigilant about verifying information before posting it on social media. Being able to evaluate the accuracy, perspective and the validity of digital media and social posts is one of the competencies that one should have in order to stay safe, solve problems and become a force for good, ” she said.
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