THE first thing Yannik Anuar does when he wakes up is turn on Sky News.
“Although Britain is about 10,000km from Malaysia, I am more in tune with the British response to the Covid-19 pandemic, ” said the 31-year-old self-confessed news junkie living in Kota Kinabalu, who studied law at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle Upon Tyne from 2011 to 2013.
After his coffee is brewed, he flips through the Daily Express, one of Sabah’s local newspapers, to get updates on the pandemic locally and nationally, while keeping an eye on Sky News.
Throughout the day, he checks The Star Online and Malay Mail – two of his favourite news portals – for the latest news on the pandemic. For breaking news, he watches Astro Awani and Bernama TV.
Yannik doesn’t glean information on Covid-19 from social media. He ditched Facebook, Instagram and Twitter two years ago after reading the bestseller "Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World", written by Cal Newton, a professor in Georgetown University in the United States.
“I wanted to declutter my mind because of information overload and too much fake news on social media, ” he said.
His other source of news is WhatsApp.
However, Yannik is careful about the information he gets from the messaging app because 2.5 out of 10 “news” bytes are fake.
For example, a video clip from an unknown expert falsely claims that 5G technology was responsible for the rapid spread of Covid-19.
Through its Sebenarnya.my portal, which has tracked debunked items of fake news since 2017, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) found that 14% of fake news was health-related, such as false claims concerning the Covid-19 pandemic.
Misinformation, and disinformation such as these, are of the current infodemic that set in with the pandemic.
Merriam-webster.com defines an infodemic as “a blend of ‘information’ and ‘epidemic’ that typically refers to a rapid and far-reaching spread of both accurate and inaccurate information about something, such as a disease”.
But because Yannik had previously chosen to stick to a digital diet on social media and technology, the misinformation and disinformation that came with Covid-19 have not infected him.
He is the exception – and not the rule – in Malaysia.
Many Malaysians don’t know how to identify "fake news", Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) journalism lecturer Teh Boon Teck says.
Surveys show Teh is spot on in his observation.
The Edelman Trust Barometer 2018 report revealed that 63% of Malaysians could not distinguish between rumours and good journalism. A 2018 study by Ipsos, a global market research firm based in France, found that 50% of Malaysians admit they had discovered stories to be fake after they believed them to be true.
Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah pointed out that there exists a demand-and-supply situation when it comes to disinformation.
“That, in turn, caused the deliberate spread of ‘fake news’, fraud and denials, to the extent that there are some people who seem to live in a parallel or fictional universe, ” he told Bernama.
For Teh, news users who fall for "fake news" – a phrase representing both misinformation and disinformation – lack news and media literacy. The lack of such skills, the former journalist says, is why misinformation spreads widely.
Inti College online journalism and film senior lecturer Lucinda Joseph agrees that some Malaysians cannot differentiate between news and ‘fake news’.
“Most can’t because they don’t rely on a credible news site for information. Their primary source of news is from social media, ” she said.
Lucinda, however, understands why the traditional media are not a source of news for the younger generation.
“They grew up getting information from social media, ” she said.
Younger audiences are aware of ‘fake news’ existing on social media and messaging apps, Lucinda said.
“But they are not going to suddenly change and depend more on traditional media for their news feed, ” she said. They should, though.
In the early days of Covid-19, for example, a piece of misinformation that went viral in Malaysia was one that said hot water could protect us from the virus.
Lucinda related how it became contagious.
“A journalist told an online forum I organised for my students that her dad forwarded the message to all his family members without fact-checking, ” said the former broadcast journalist.
Ironically, it was the traditional media that gave credence to this piece of misinformation.
In March, Malaysian Health Minister Dr Adham Baba claimed on RTM that the virus could not take heat and that warm water would flush it down to the stomach where digestive acid would kill it.
Importantly, it was also the media that debunked the Health Minister's "fake news". It ran reports quoting health experts saying there was no evidence to back such a dubious claim.
But the MCMC points to an encouraging development in Malaysia, where many news organisations have experienced significant increase in readership and viewership over the last couple of years.
“The news industry should continue to focus on high-quality journalism that builds trust and attracts greater audiences, ” an MCMC spokesperson said.
A 2019 Ipsos survey stated that Malaysians have more trust in traditional media compared to five years ago.
“Some 79% of Malaysians think newspapers and magazines have good intentions, trust the intentions of TV and radio, and for online news sources the figure is 70%, ” it said.
That’s good news for journalism.
In debunking "fake news", Teh said the media plays a role in educating people on news literacy and stopping them from spreading further.
“The media serves as an essential source to check the authenticity of news because journalists verify the information before publishing it, ” he said.
Yannik does his own verification, too. If the "news" is dodgy, he will double-check it with established media organisations, including The Star Online.
“Probably because of my academic training, I make sure that my source of information is credible before I rely on it. Why must I trust information sent by a random person on WhatsApp?” he said.
The vaccine for infodemic on Covid-19 is simply good journalism.
This article is in collaboration with the #fighttheinfodemic series of Reporting ASEAN.
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