EARLY Sunday morning, I received a forwarded voice message on WhatsApp, cautioning people to separate their mail for at least 24 hours.
“There has been a report of a postman positive for Covid-19 (...) spitting on letters, ” said Datuk Dr Christopher Lee, an infectious disease specialist and member of the Selangor Covid-19 task force, in the voice recording.
Within a few minutes, I confirmed with a friend who personally knew Dr Lee that it was not his voice.
The former deputy Director-General at the Health Ministry was aware of the recording circulating wildly, and although he had plenty on his to-do list, he spared time to issue a humorous statement denying it was him, claiming he did not sound that good.
While finding humour in a frustrating situation is admirable, there is nothing funny about false information being shared surrounding Covid-19.
Indeed, this is the first time the world is experiencing a global pandemic in the age of widespread use of communication apps and social media. The last pandemic we faced was the swine flu/H1N1 outbreak in late 2009, when less than 14% of Malaysians used a smartphone. Today, Malaysia has 20.9 million smartphone users (66.4% of the total population), ranking 29th in the world.
With Google trends since late January for Malaysia showing spiked interest for search terms such as “coronavirus”, “covid19”, “mask”, and briefly, “pandemic”, for the first time there is a large captive audience for science-related news and information, which previously for many, was a niche interest at best.
But while there have been incredible effort from agencies and individuals who use the opportunity to share knowledge intended to assuage fears and empower the public to reduce their risk of getting or spreading the disease, there are many who seem to use this sudden turn of events to forward other interests.
Scrolling down the Covid-19 section on sebenarnya.my, a website for verifying news under the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, one can find debunking of bogus viral messages such as new Covid-19 cases in different locations (complete with private information), sellers of dubious masks and hand sanitisers, apps impersonating government agencies stealing personal data, false information about the movement control order (MCO), and various remedies without scientific evidence – just to name a few.
In fact, much of the fake news circulating does not originate directly from individual accounts. They come instead from automated programs called bots, created and controlled by people who want to incite doubt, fear and panic.
But worse, there are human accounts that act as if they are bots, and these are called trollbots by the website Bot Sentinel, which monitors bot activity on social media. As of April 3, the top trending hashtags by trollbots are, unsurprisingly, #Covid19 and #coronavirus.
Out of curiosity, a colleague and I did a quick survey distributed online, to find out what Malaysians knew and perceived about Covid-19, as well as their attitudes towards communications surrounding Covid-19.
Of the 1,002 people who responded, an encouragingly high majority knew basic information related to Covid-19, such as the fact that it causes respiratory symptoms, and that there is no vaccine available.
While only 66% of respondents were aware that Covid-19 is not a bacterial infection and hence cannot be treated with antibiotics, the survey data suggest that the dissemination of basic information about Covid-19 has been effective.
Strikingly, however, while 78% of respondents agreed they received a lot of quality information about Covid-19,78% also agreed they received a lot of fake news about it. This shows that the effort to increase awareness of the public is being equally challenged by the spread of misinformation.
Also, 81% of respondents agreed they were eager to share the news, and 96% felt the information they received strongly influenced how they think about the disease and what they do to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their community.
These statistics illustrate the double-edged sword of living through a pandemic in the age of rapid communications. Having a platform to rapidly increase accessibility of information has been crucial in helping us as a society to better coordinate, manage and survive this public health emergency.
However, the equal rampant spread of different flavours of fake news has also resulted in wasteful distractions, unnecessary panic, and in some instances, actual harm to health and wellbeing.
The survey also sheds light on another important point. A majority of respondents appears to share information out of concern and with the intention of being helpful, regardless whether they realise the content they shared was from a trustworthy source or otherwise.
Many commented that they experienced difficulty in verifying information, and this is made worse when coupled with low confidence in the transparency and trustworthiness of government and other authorities as main sources of information.
It is not difficult to imagine, in the face of an invisible, mysterious and potentially deadly enemy, feelings of helplessness may be overwhelming. Simultaneously, seeping doubt of traditional authorities may drive some to turn to unverified sources that seem to offer solutions to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Undeniably, the coronavirus is perhaps one of the most contagious new viruses humanity has encountered. But ironically, the only thing more infectious than the virus is perhaps the sensational (and often fake) news about it.
In hindsight, there were signs the message about Covid-19 infected postmen spitting on letters was a fake.
One, there was no original or credible source linked to the message.
Two, why would Datuk Dr Christopher Lee simply record a voice message when he can make a statement through official channels?
Three, it made little scientific sense. Although saliva of an infected person does contain the virus, throat swabs or sputum are still required to obtain enough virus for confirmatory diagnostic testing, which means any spit on mail will not likely carry enough virus.
And yet, I received the message thrice within the span of an hour, suggesting that the message had a forward Ro (reproductive rate) of at least 3.
The scientific and medical community (and indeed many new allies in the shape of NGOs, fashion designers, manufacturers and media to name a few) are working hard to get us through Covid-19. But unfortunately, there are no easy answers and solutions yet. In fact, as it is with science, more questions instead are raised.
So the next time you receive a message about a supposed secret cure or a new theory or alarm bells related to Covid-19, do exercise some scepticism in this age of rapid (mis)communication and avoid becoming part of the transmission link for viral fake news.
As the saying goes: if you’re not sure, don’t share.
Dr Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah is senior lecturer in Medical Microbiology at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and an affiliate of Young Scientists Network-Academy of Sciences Malaysia. She is active in science communication and infectious disease biomedical research. She was the first female Asian champion of FameLab, the world’s longest running science communication competition, in 2018. The writer’s views are her own.
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