By Johanna Son*
BANGKOK – A virus riding on another virus. That is how the ‘infodemic’ is raging in online spaces around the outbreak of the novel coronavirus called COVID-19, which has been on just about everyone’s radar since late January 2020.
As grave as the quest to manage the respiratory disease and cure those ill with it is not only the challenge of using facts versus fear – but how to create and keep avenues of information that withstand the unrelenting drip of skewed, confused, partially true to totally false information, to racist and prejudiced views, or a cocktail of these.
Varied strains of these messages in text and visuals in online communities like WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook messenger, as well as social media platforms, have spread across Southeast Asia. The region’s percentage of people with internet access, 66% of 665 million people, exceeds the 59% global average, says the ‘Digital 2020 Reports’ by We Are Social and Hootsuite.
Moreover, 63 percent of Southeast Asians use social media, compared to 49% globally, the same set of reports says. They spend more time online than internet users around the world, who spend 6.43 hours online and 2.24 hours on social media. In comparison, Filipinos spend the most time online (9.45 hours) and on social media (3.53 hours) a day, globally. Thais come in second (9.01 and 2.55 hours), then Indonesians (7.59 and 3.26 hours).
Fear and confusion accompany crises, but online habits and the popularity of social platforms have opened another front in the battle against the coronavirus, which originated from China’s central city of Wuhan in December.
Some of the nastiest rumors behave like multi-drug resistant strains of viruses, being replicated endlessly across countries.
Take the claim that COVID-19 ‘escaped’ from the laboratory of Chinese scientist She Zhengli, whose research into bats and coronaviruses has been of invaluable help in identifying this new coronavirus. At one point, She, who works with the National Biosafety Laboratory in Wuhan, posted on the Chinese social platform WeChat: “I swear with my life, (the virus) has nothing to do with the lab.”
One mutation of this tale has it that COVID-19 is part of a Chinese program on biological warfare.
TRUST: A CASUALTY
When COVID-19 history is documented in medical journals one day, it will be infamous for its virulence of confusion and panic, spread across online venues. In February, the ‘MIT Technology Review’ called the coronavirus “the first true social-media ‘infodemic’.”
“The single biggest difference and difficulty” between the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis some 17 years ago and the COVID-19 outbreak is that it is “getting harder to communicate and to build trust” this time,Keiji Fukuda, a physician who is an influenza epidemiology expert with the School of Public Health of Hong Kong University, told the ‘South China Morning Post’.
“We have entered into an era where people are more confused, there are more rumours than ever and it creates more division,” said Fukuda, a former WHO assistant director-general with experience in past public health emergencies. “The level of trust is the key ingredient and societal basis for almost everything when dealing with public health.”
Added to this are the lethal doses of racism against Chinese nationals, also extended to Southeast Asians (‘the yellow peril’) in some places. Prejudice festers within ethnic Chinese communities in the region, intensified by negative perceptions of China as a major power and unpopular issues like the online gambling operations by Chinese firms in the Philippines. There is also stigmatization within China against those from or have been to Wuhan. All are amplified several times over.
These acts of ‘othering’ play out in public, racist and xenophobic posts, with seemingly little left of the social sanctions that, in the pre-social media era, required such sentiments to at least be muted or hidden.
Yet it is these same online spaces that have given us a limitless world where we can easily check on friends and family in these stressful times, access scientific/medical data and reliable news reports. They are a lifeline of normalcy to residents of cities in lockdown, and to people in quarantine.
PETRI DISH OF NOISE AND FILTH
But the digital world’s lack of norms makes it prone to becoming a petri dish of deafening ‘noise’ and filth on steroids, into which fear-based behaviour sinks comfortably.
The myths that WHO counters on its website say a lot about the prevalence of fear-based ‘information’. It assures that it is safe to receive mail pouches from China. Thinking of spraying alcohol all over your body or rinsing your nose with saline solution as prevention measure? Not good or effective ideas, it cautions.
“The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ – an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it,” the WHO said on its website on Feb 2. It said it is working 24 hours to spot the most prevalent rumours and refuting them.
ANTIDOTE: PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
This worst time thus provides the best time to give ourselves an immunity shot to avoid succumbing to misinformation, malice and meanness. The antidote is with us, but we have to choose it and use it: our personal responsibility as digital citizens.
This ‘job’ cannot be passed on to Facebook or Google, which are profit-driven giants that make up Big Tech and have too big a footprint in our information environment, one that is increasingly being called a worrisome ‘technocracy’ of a different kind.
We have a degree of responsibility for material we choose to pass on, even if we did not create it. ‘I’m just passing on something I received’ no longer holds in today’s digital settings. We are not passive platforms run by algorithms or in a ’got this, will share it’ contest of sorts. In short, don’t be lazy.
While Southeast Asians spend a lot more time online and on social platforms, they don’t appear to be very worried about “misinformation and ‘fake news’,” data from the ‘Digital 2020’ reports found.
The Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, heavy online users, are nowhere in the list of the top 36 nations worried about misinformation. Malaysia and Singapore had the highest figures, at 64% and 63%, of users concerned about this.
Just as the world will have to learn to live with new coronavirus, the online world will always have gems, junk and everything in between.
EIGHT ONLINE TIPS
Here are eight tips for making your way online in these viral times:
1 Remember that when online, you are never alone.
You may be alone in your room and have your screen all to yourself, but the World Wide Web is very public. Everything in it, true or manufactured, is amplified so they are louder, bigger, more shrill.
2 What you ‘chose’ or ‘found’ on the web are not purely your decisions.
Every time you go to the web, your online behaviour – what you buy, what you searched, which pages you visited – is tracked by the browsers, applications or social media platform you use. Algorithms track these continuously, and use them to let you ‘find’ what they calculated would ‘suit’ you.
So when your social media feed throws up more of a similar material, it’s not the universe sending you a message, or events necessarily happening more often. It’s the algorithmic formulas at work, so think before you click and be conscious that they can create echo chambers. (You may find it useful to download DuckDuckGo or Brave browsers, which do not keep track what you do. And yes, there is life outside Google.)
3 Turn on your doubt gene.
Avoid becoming a superspreader of poor-quality and harmful information. Train yourself to ask some basic questions when your phone pings with the latest passed-on information. Make this your default mode.
‘Where did this come from?’, ‘What is the original source?’, ‘Can it be verified?’ are some starter questions. You don’t need to get 100% of the answers, but if the material in question fails to meet even these minimums, it is a fail. Kill it.
Look for context to better understand the bigger picture, beyond the latest counts of people who died from the coronavirus disease or got sick. Many recover. The lack of context can distort facts, making a bad situation worse.
4 Racism does not fall under free speech or freedom of expression.
‘Othering’ cannot be classified as a human right. It is of no small import that issues of race are among the legal limitations on free speech in several countries. It is a form of hate speech – even if said or posted by a journalist, by politicians or community leaders.
As has been said, fight the virus, not the victims.
5 Not everything that looks and sounds like news are, in fact, such.
‘Online content’ is by no means a synonym for news. It refers to any online material, including trash. A news story is the product of journalistic skills, which involve gathering data and stitching them together, then having it edited and discussed within a news production process before it is released to the public. This allows a degree of vetting that is absent in blogs or many public posts, one that decreases the risk of misinformation (whether a story is well done is another matter).
If a website does not have a proper ‘about us’ section or background, or lacks information about its editorial team, it isn’t worth much of your screen time. The use of the phrase ‘reports say’, without attribution to sources, in stories and opinion pieces, is a red flag.
Put it this way: If you have to read bad news, let it at least be accurate.
6 Opt for the original, and go straight to the source.
You do have basic means, in just a few seconds, to verify an item you come across, by visiting a real and reliable news site. Believing and passing on material sent in the anonymity of chat groups, just because it was sent to you by someone you know, is risky.
Social media platforms filter what posts from the news sites you like/follow show in your feed, so it’s good practice to take back your power and sign up for the email newsletters of the news products you find useful.
Here are a few primary sources of information around the COVID-19 disease:
7 Don’t forget: the internet is forever.
What you share in stressful times, in fearful or confused mode, is there forever. There is life after this outbreak, and your comments can be held up in front of you. Would you be comfortable about what you posted, say a year from now?
8 Craft and consume a healthy digital diet.
Just as we watch the food that goes into our bodies, we choose what we feed our psyche from online spaces. Train your brain to resist the dopamine rush of Facebook and social media. Use technology, instead of letting it use you.
Take a break from your screens, which in today’s distracted world, is part of overall health and self-care.
*This article was first published as part of the Heinrich Boll Foundation Southeast Asia’s web series. Johanna Son, editor/founder of the Reporting ASEAN program, has covered regional news and issues for three decades. She is also a media trainer working with journalists from Southeast Asia.