KUALA LUMPUR – Early one morning, I received a forwarded WhatsApp message from an acquaintance who wanted me to verify its contents. According to the message, several COVID-19 cases have been reported at a certain location and it urged the public to avoid the area and residents to remain at home. It ended with the familiar #kitajagakita hashtag.
As a journalist, I was annoyed that such a message was being shared widely although it was not verified by the authorities. All it did was cause panic among the residents of that particular area.
In this era of digital technology where the latest information is at our fingertips, fake news or unverified reports are being circulated widely to the extent of causing uneasiness among the public.
The issue of fake news going viral is not new in our country and it has, in fact, become a global concern. On April 2, the company that owns the WhatsApp platform placed new limits on the forwarding of messages amid scrutiny on the potential of private message apps to spread misinformation related to COVID-19.
For our country that is battling the COVID-19 crisis and frontliners who are working hard to prevent the virus from spreading further, the deluge of fake reports and information is their worst nightmare. Add to this the current political climate which certain quarters, obviously motivated by self-interest, are taking advantage of to circulate false reports.
It is even more worrying when fake reports boldly use statements supposedly attributed to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Ministry of Health (MOH) to create turmoil.
On Oct 26, Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah denied reports that the ministry has been manipulating COVID-19 case numbers to pave the way for the declaration of emergency. He stressed that the data is gathered through an information system used by state Health Departments to key in daily caseloads.
In the world of social media, there are users who get a thrill out of being the “first” to share a certain news item with their circle of friends and contacts even though the information has yet to appear on any official portal or reputable news portal.
‘There is no smoke without fire,’ so say social media users in defence of their decision to share an unverified report and who have no qualms about belittling reporters whose job it is to channel news to the public.
It is sad to note that many of the senders and receivers of fake news are senior citizens who claim that they are doing so as they care for the people around them. But what is the point of sharing news when its authenticity is uncertain?
Dr Noor Nirwandy Mat Noordin, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Media and Information Warfare at Universiti Teknologi Mara, said the fight against the circulation of fake news is far from over and that there is a need to educate society on this via various platforms, including social media and mainstream media.
“The government has provided various platforms to curb the dissemination of fake information, including the portal ‘Sebenarnya.my’ by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) where the public can verify any news whose authenticity is suspect.
“When one shares information on social media without checking its veracity, it can threaten the security of the nation and also affect social harmony,” he said.
He said the culture of sharing false news can have a negative cognitive impact on society as it can lead to panic, excitement or emotional outbursts that can cause disunity.
“During the Movement Control Order, a lot of time was spent surfing the Internet or on social media, as a result of which people became sensitive and were unable to control their emotions when they came across reports that made them angry… without even checking if the information was genuine or not.
“At a time when the government and our frontliners are busy with COVID-19, the circulation of fake news can put a damper on their efforts to fight the pandemic and harm the nation in terms of its economic and social aspects,” he said.
The only credible sources of news and data are the National Security Council, MOH, MCMC and other official organisations.
Dr Noor Nirwandy said the public can trust the information released by these agencies and that these agencies have no reason to “hide the facts” as alleged by some irresponsible parties.
He said the purveyors of fake news are also tarnishing the image of the mainstream media
“This happens when the people no longer depend on authentic sources (of news) and, instead, prefer to believe in rumours,” he said.
He said the mainstream media and news portals also have a role to play in conveying information and data to the public that have been verified by the relevant professionals and experts.
MCMC and the police are also working together to curb the circulation of fake news, particularly those related to COVID-19 and issues that can create unrest in the community.
According to MCMC, the creation and circulation of fake news and content are offences under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and those found guilty face a maximum fine of RM50,000 or one-year imprisonment or both.
Members of the public who wish to check the authenticity of any news can check the Sebenarnya.my portal or subscribe to its Telegram channel at https://t.me/sebenarnyamy.
The public has a role to play too to put a stop to the circulation and sharing of unverified information and reports. As the Sebenarnya.com tag line goes, ‘Jika Tidak Pasti, Jangan Kongsi’ (If Not Sure, Don’t Share). It is as simple as that.