BEIJING: Soon after Alex Chow Tsz-lok fell off the edge of a parking garage in Hong Kong, the allegations began spreading online.
Posts circulating in chat groups and on social media claimed the 22-year-old student was chased – and maybe even pushed – by police who were clearing protesters with tear gas nearby.
Officers blocked an ambulance from reaching Chow, the posts alleged, delaying aid that could have saved his life.The polarising rhetoric is fuelling distrust and violence, making it harder to resolve the crisis that has plunged Hong Kong into a recession and raised doubts about the city’s role as Asia’s premier financial hub.
Nevermind that the claims were unsubstantiated, that police denied chasing Chow and that mainstream news outlets, including the South China Morning Post, described the circumstances of his fall as unclear.
Hundreds of protesters seized on his Nov 8 death to engage in clashes with police that resulted in one person being shot on Monday.
As the protests, triggered by the extradition Bill incident, stretch into their 23rd straight week, the city is being inundated with online rumours, fake news and propaganda from both sides of the political divide.
“False information feeds itself to polarise public opinion, ” said Masato Kajimoto, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.
“I worry that it will reach a point where reconciliation of this divide will no longer be possible.”
While the spread of disinformation has become a growing concern around the world, few places have been as affected in recent weeks as Hong Kong.
In the past 24 hours alone, local authorities have denied rumours that they ordered police to fire on protesters at will; planned to cap cash withdrawals from banks; and would use emergency powers to shut financial markets and schools.
After one of the most violent days since protests started in June, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam urged residents to “stay calm and see the facts”.
Hong Kong doesn’t have a fake news law, though the city’s secretary for security John Lee Ka-chiu said earlier this month that “most of the laws in the real world are applicable to the online world”, such as publishing information that threatens public safety.
Last month, the city’s high court granted an injunction banning anyone from “disseminating, circulating, publishing or re-publishing” Internet posts that incite violence on popular platforms including Telegram and LIHKG.
Three quarters of the population get their news online today, up from 48% in 2016, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. In August, a third of people rated the Internet as their most trustworthy news source, surpassing television for the first time since the institute began tracking the issue in 1993. — Agencies/China Daily/ANN