Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, aptly warned us right at the start of the pandemic that "We're not just fighting an epidemic; we're fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous..if the problem is not solved, then we are headed down a dark path that leads nowhere but division and disharmony."
From a socio-cultural perspective, today digital technology is largely synonymous with real-time global news and the media that controls it. With the data on Covid-19 flowing in from all corners of the world, it has become increasingly imperative to address the question of misleading news and how to tackle the same at every level of societal organization, down to the level of an individual. Misinformation as a phenomenon existed even in the middle ages. Much like the virus, we are seeing the impact proliferate faster and further than one can comprehend. Certain user-generated content obfuscates critical information, heightens speculation that leads to rampant fear mongering. The pace at which information is disseminated in our times is also an indicator of how the local discussions around that topic can spiral to have global repercussions.
While each public health event is different, many studies on the subject have provided insight into the possible social media environment during a future epidemic and suggested ways that could help optimize potential public health communication strategies. For instance, between 2013-16 there was a study on the West Africa Ebola epidemic, misinformation and how to deal with it. The results highlighted the importance of anticipating politicization of disease outbreaks and the need for policy makers and social media companies to build partnerships and develop response frameworks in advance of an event.
We are witnessing a number of approaches taken by various bodies to analyze the same data set, which leads to more obfuscation causing more chaos than originally created by the information being analyzed. Therefore, it is crucial to study where we stand on the infodemic and where we could be if we strategize efficiently and implement those strategies promptly, especially as we broach our collective and currently uncertain battle against Covid-19.
WHERE WE ARE
Pandemic and populism
The increase in corona scams is inevitable with the Covid-19 spread. Many countries, including India, witnessed arrests on account of misinformation being circulated through the lockdown period in India. An expert on disinformation, Rasmus Nielsen, Director of Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford, said, "With little focus on combating misinformation, erratic and unclear communication from the government allowing rumors to flourish and rising strain on the population, the number of arrests might be expected to grow."
Alternative news media, in this context, is particularly problematic for their collective claim to be the "corrective" version of the traditional news media while simultaneously engaging in unabashed fact bending. Often, this kind of alternative content aims at shaping public opinion according to an agenda that is perceived as "being underrepresented, ostracized or otherwise marginalized in mainstream news media" Following this logic, many alternative news media sites position themselves as an explicit counter-force or watchdog to "mainstream news media," which also explains a somewhat paradoxical self-perception: while they need to differ from the mainstream by definition, they are also strongly tied to it, like a mirror image.
A study analyzed the factual basis of fears around the alternative news media spreading societal confusion and spreading potentially dangerous "fake news" or conspiracy theories via social media and other online channels. This was done so by studying alternative news media's output on Facebook during the early Coronavirus crisis based on a German data set from January to the second half of March 2020. This particular analysis revealed that alternative news stays true to message patterns and ideological foundations, while they don't spread obvious lies, they predominantly share over critical, even anti-systemic messages, conspiracy theories regarding the origins of COVIS-19 and the origins of SARS-CoV-2, anti-migration narratives linked to the coronavirus, opposing the views of the mainstream news media and the political establishment. Some of these articles use pandemics just as click bait and a buzzword to attract attention to sell their products. With pandemic populism they contribute to a contradictory, menacing and disturbing worldview, as elaborated in the analysis and expose us to a high-risk situation in addition to the pandemic itself.
Ryen White and Eric Horvitz in 2009 delved into a growing phenomenon that had the potential to increase the anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when the Internet search was initiated as a diagnostic procedure. They coined the term Cyberchondria to refer to the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on a review of search results and literature on the web.
Forwarding health related information on social media and via instant messaging is a predictable response in such times, especially with the labyrinth of information available with accessible technology at our fingertips. Information circulating on WhatsApp about children's immunity to Coronavirus, the definition, nature and the temperatures at which this virus terminates, home remedies, precautions and other unofficial health guidelines are a few topics that contribute to the paranoia induced by this version of Cyberchondria.
WHO's Risk Communication team launched this new information platform as soon as Covid-19 was declared a public health emergency, with the aim of using a series of amplifiers to share tailored information with specific target groups. These technical risk communication and social media teams have been tracking and responding to myths and rumors on the virus across Weibo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest. This swift move has proved extremely helpful till now and is vital to develop more effective strategies to manage misinformation during infectious disease emergencies based on an understanding of typical trends in health related misinformation.
Misinformation related arrests
Many countries all over the world have joined China in cracking down on "misinformation" or "fake news" with arrests and the threat of jail time. While there are no specific laws to tackle misinformation or fake news explicitly in India till now, in situations amounting to "rumor mongering" most matters are registered under the existing provisions of the Indian Penal Code and the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. While Kerala High Court decreed that the police should not make arrests, except where it is inevitable, attracting provisions under Section 505 (1) (b), 153 (A), 504 and 505 of the IPC arrests have been made in the states of Mizoram, Odisha, Telangana, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Further, amidst much political mud-slinging, Maharashtra Police even came out with strict guidelines in an order that explicitly stated that peddling fake news had the potential of creating a law and order situation, lead to danger to human health and safety, and disturbance of public tranquility so people must refrain from doing so.
An AFP tally based on police reports found that at least 266 people have been arrested for posting coronavirus-related information in 10 Asian countries. In Cambodia, which has emerged as a case study in this trend unto itself, a Facebook pundit who posted a quote from Prime Minister Hun Sen was charged with incitement to commit felony and is facing up to two years in jail. Cambodian authorities have also detained four opposition politicians, according to HRW, while a local rights group and police sources said a 14-year-old girl was among more than a dozen people arrested, who was forced by police to publicly apologize after expressing fear about the coronavirus in a Facebook message. A considerable number of Cambodians have been arrested in recent weeks and made to sign apology documents. Marrying criticism with misinformation, Prime Minister Hun Sen has gone to the extent of branding those who spread fake news as "terrorists."
Taking this worrying trend a notch up, Cambodia's National Assembly passed the state of emergency law, which in essence authorizes the government with broad powers to "monitor, observe, and gather information from all telecommunication mediums" and control the "distribution of information that could scare the public, unrest, or that can negatively impact national security."
In Thailand, a street artist was arrested and charged with causing damage to Bangkok's main airport after posting on Facebook about the absence of coronavirus screenings there. Further, a state-of-emergency decree was passed in late March that criminalized sharing misinformation online about Covid-19 that could potentially "instigate fear". This is in addition to the preexisting Computer Crimes Act, which has a five-year maximum jail penalty and is often used to stifle dissent online.
Several similar unnerving instances have been on the rise in other Asian countries as well. A middle-aged woman in Sri Lanka spent three days in custody after posting a prank message on Facebook saying the president had tested positive for Covid-19, police said. In Malaysia, a TV personality was made to pay a fine of several thousand US dollars after he posted a YouTube video criticizing a hospital's handling of the pandemic. Meanwhile, an Indonesian man who criticized President Joko Widodo on social media for his response to the virus was slapped with charges relating to defamation and inciting racial hatred. And finally, the Philippines also recently adopted an emergency law giving it more powers to combat the pandemic, including arresting people who share false information about the disease.
WHERE WE COULD BE
India as a country can benefit from the trends that are developing in the region and we can take a few solid steps to formulate our strategies in a way that tackles the pandemic as also the infodemic, simultaneously.
First, the trend of Southeast Asian governments using the pandemic as an excuse to adopt new arbitrary measures, like emergency decrees, to crack down on free speech is nothing short of alarming for our collective future. As crucial as these measures are to protect public health, they have usually been paired with stifling free speech under the pretext of combating the spread of false information and maintaining public order.
A Supreme Court lawyer and expert on the subject, Karuna Nandy points out correctly that, in India's case, "such arrests are particularly alarming during a lockdown, when courts are mostly shut" and the people are bereft of a solid recourse. While India lacks any specific fake news law, there do exist provisions of laws that can be used for rumour mongering most of which are broad and prone to whimsical interpretations that potentially lead to arbitrary actions. While governments have the responsibility to counter misinformation, it is not wise to resort to criminal prosecution or heavy censorship. This could stifle open communication and heavily restrict the right to freedom of expression, a right quintessential in curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, authorities could adopt less intrusive methods, such as supporting digital literacy and proactively disclosing information relating to COVID-19.
Second, while the alternative news media were suspected of being problematic, confusing, and misleading voices in the Corona crisis by politicians, journalists, and the public alike. Some politicians, even in liberal democracies, called for legal action to prevent the public from being dangerously misinformed by channels that propagate rumors or lies, which in turn, were feared to harm the citizens, and indeed, some countries imposed stricter rules and regulations based on these assumptions.
Third, this pandemic has brought about a palpable shift where people are tilting towards conventional media sources state media outlets can prove to be conduits of authentic and timely news. Governments have the opportunity to leverage this shift in reliance on authentic state media outlets, traditional mainstream news organizations and authoritative sources, to gain public trust by implementing measures aimed at protecting people misinformation via news media and frequent public statements and clarifications.
Fourth, health care organizations can take this opportunity to take advantage of the relationship between electronic news media and trending events on social media and develop social media campaigns along with leading electronic news media outlets (Yahoo news, CNN, NY Times, NPR, Buzzfeed, BBC) that can have influence on social media activity.
Fifth, we must rally for laws on the lines of Singapore's POFMA - Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation, wherein Section 7 prohibits the spread of fake news by prohibiting any act of communicating a false statement of fact (not opinions and criticisms) without exceptions for Internet intermediaries like Google, Facebook, Twitter or Baidu and the likes. But at the same time we have to bear in mind that this regulated environment on the Internet could be a threat to independent media, stifling free speech and expression tantamounting to abuse of law, suppression of quintessential dissenting voices and ultimately hitting the bedrock of democracy and prove problematic in the long run. The need of the hour is to lobby for policies and regulations that strike a balance between the two.
Further, the Singapore government in a concerted action created Information advisories involving five separate ministries, that would be accessible to different sections of the society, by giving them ample opportunities to approach the government with utmost ease. They have done so creatively, in three ways - by establishing fact checking sites on Facebook and Instagram of govt. officials, by enabling push-message channels on Whatsapp, authorized by the govt. and by installing display panels in most residential areas. India as a country can benefit manifolds from adopting such affirmative practices in urban as well as rural areas.
Sixth, the thing that worked in favor of the Chinese media and government was the fact that they consistently drew attention to "science and rationality" as the most powerful weapons in tackling Covid-19. The government took a strict stance early on to order criminal prosecution for dissemination of false information during the outbreak. In that context, we must also formulate policies that focus on practically educating the masses from all stratas of the society, as it is applicable to our model of government. In this context, we could draw on China's principal tenets of considering "science and rationality" as powerful weapons in our times.
Seventh, we require timely corrective advice by the government as much as we need to encourage citizen Internet activism for socially responsible behavior. The responsibilities to be shouldered by a government in the middle of a pandemic must not be shifted to the citizens in an imbalanced manner, whether to unreasonably bear the economic load or take certain requisite precautions that must be taken to prevent community transmission.
Eighth, we can learn from South Korea and promote more practices that enable cross-referencing our shared global experience. South Korea was the first country to stay consistently on the forefront of news reportage, since the beginning of the pandemic, by cross-referencing the plight experienced by other countries in handling the pandemic and also the infodemic crisis. By staying on top of the best practices globally, the country not only flattened the curve in record time but also combated the onslaught of misinformation to some extent.
In conclusion, as a society, we must take a beat and become mindful enough to fact check first, before publishing, forwarding or sharing any piece of information. This global public health crisis is a massive opportunity to course correct and realize that authentic information is our greatest tool, when it comes to saving lives.
Views are personal only
(Chaani Srivastava is a Intellectual Property and Technology Attorney, Law Offices of Chaani Srivastava)