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Keep Quiet or Speak Up When Someone Sends Unverified Content? Tough.

BANGKOK | 1 March 2021 | Check out our data visualisation below. Full report/download here.

Your phone pings and alerts you to content that has just come in about COVID-19, one whose authenticity you can’t quite tell. Do you keep quiet and kill it, or do you find a way to call the sender’s attention? If you find this a touchy situation, that’s exactly how Southeast Asians think.

The results of the survey ‘News Habits and COVID-19: A Southeast Asian Lens’, conducted by the Reporting ASEAN series, show that online users are quite split on how they handle situations like these, which have been far from uncommon in these pandemic times. 

The biggest number or 40%, of the total of 118 survey respondents from nine Southeast Asian countries, chose the response ‘I keep quiet but do not pass the information on’ when asked to select which among seven options “best describes what you usually do” when receiving material whose reliability or authenticity they cannot readily tell.

Thirty-four percent, or a slightly smaller figure, speak up to point out the lack of verification around the content they receive. They chose this reply: “I find, or try to find, a way to tell the person to be cautious, or explain why it should be questioned or verified.”

The third largest group (12%) said they typically pass the content on but add a comment saying ‘I’m not sure about the authenticity of this material’. Three percent chose the option ‘It’s not my responsibility to call other people’s attention about these issues.’ Just two percent said they would pass it on and “let the recipients decide for themselves.”

“I just try to keep my opinions to myself, not to share anything on my Facebook, whether it is formal or informal news, and not to get involved into the turbulence in the internet,” said one respondent from Vietnam, a researcher who usually keeps quiet about content whose authenticity is uncertain. “People might have their own opinions about some issues and it is hard to change their mindsets,” she said, when asked about her replies.

It does get tricky, a Filipino media professional agrees, since it is family and kin who usually pass information on to her. But she says she tries to be “gentle” when alerting them to untrue content, by sharing links to the verification website snopes.com.

“A lot of the websites where certain sensational ‘news’ comes from are not even established organizations and if the posts they shared were from dubious sources, I’d tell them so,” she said when asked about how she discusses misinformation with her contacts. “Or I tell them to NOT keep sharing/forwarding posts by trolls by sharing the links. It takes months because I don’t tell them off head-on. So I just repeat advice, warnings.”

“I don’t call them out in public so they can save face and, instead, I message them privately,” she added.

As for users’ responsibility for information they pass on without checking or asking first, she said that “those people who simply share and share without checking will always be there”, including in Viber groups popular in the Philippines. But more individuals now at least ask ‘fake news?’ in these groups, so “see, there are people who learned to verify already”.

From the survey results, Southeast Asians agree that individual users do have a degree of responsibility for information they pass on.

The survey respondents also had divided views on how difficult it is to judge the reliability of information, including around COVID-19. But interestingly, nearly all (99%) rated themselves as having ‘average’, ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ ability to judge the reliability of content. 

A total of 43% replied that it is ‘easy’ to judge the reliability of information and an almost similar number, 42%, said it is ‘hard’. 

The 99% of respondents who gave themselves average to excellent skills in figuring out the reliability of content is composed of 45% who said they are ‘very good’ in this, 42% who said they have ‘average’ ability and 12% who gave themselves an ‘excellent’ rating.

YES TO PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY

At the same time, despite having different information habits, Southeast Asians agree that individual users have a degree of responsibility for information they pass on – regardless of where it came from.

A total of 75% of respondents said they either disagree or strongly agree with this statement: “It’s fine to repost or share material whose authenticity I am not sure about or have not checked, if I say ‘I’m not sure if this is real’, but I’m sharing this’. It’s up to the recipients to decide what to do with it.” Of this figure, 44% said they ‘strongly disagree’ with the above statement.

Most of the respondents to the online survey were from the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar and Thailand, with each country making up from 12 to 17% of the total, followed by Laos and Singapore, Malaysia and then Cambodia. They came from 11 types of professions, with the top two groups being teachers and education professionals (17%) and news and media professionals (16%). Forty percent were between 30 to 39 years old and 26%, 20 to 29 years old.

Conducted from late to October to end-December 2020, the survey showed how Southeast Asians use online spaces, including their sources of news and their trust in these sources of information.

News outlets are still the most used sources of news and information – both generally and about COVID-19 – although not by a huge percentage. Social media posts came next, and last is information in messaging, chat groups and applications, when respondents were asked to rank these three sources.

A closer look at the survey data shows that while news outlets’ own websites and/or applications are Southeast Asians’ top source of both general and pandemic-related news, they used news outlets more when it comes to COVID-19 – and relied less on social media.

A total of 48% of respondents said they get most of their news and information about current affairs from news outlets’ sites and applications, with a close 43% saying their top source was social media. When it comes to COVID-19 material, a bigger figure, or 57%, cited news outlets as their top information source, followed by 35% for social media.

In both general and COVID-19 news, Southeast Asians put content circulated in messaging and chat applications as the third and last source after news outlets and social media. Only 8% cited these as their top source of general and COVID-19 news, although 20% of respondents listed messaging and chat groups as their second top source for pandemic-related information.

NEWS OUTLETS STILL TRUSTED

An overwhelming majority – 98% of respondents – said they had trust in news outlets as information sources for COVID-19. This figure is composed of 47% who ‘high trust’ in news outlets, 44% with ‘average trust’ and 7% with very high trust’.

Social media had average or higher trust from 68% of respondents, comprising 60% who cited ’average trust’, 6% ‘high trust’ and 2% ‘very high trust’. A total of 31% of respondents said they had ‘low trust’ in it, and 2% said ‘no trust’. For content circulated in messaging, chat groups and applications, 60% of the respondents said they had low (46%) or no trust (14%) in these.

Three-fourths of respondents said they have received misinformation and disinformation around COVID-19, but they did not necessarily encounter this more often during the pandemic. Thirty-eight percent reported getting misinformation at about the same frequency before and during the pandemic, 36% said ‘more often’ and 26% said ‘less often’ than pre-COVID-19 times.

When asked to recall the misinformation they received, two-thirds of the topics cited by the respondents were about the severity/scale/statistics around COVID-19 and false/unsubstantiated claims about prevention, treatment and risks of COVID-19 tests.

The survey results also offered a glimpse into the perceptions and actions of particular groups of Southeast Asian respondents.

For instance, medical professionals, who made up nearly 6% of the respondents, had 100% trust in news outlets but 71% of them also had trust in chat groups. (Doctors tended to have their own chat groups during COVID-19.)

All respondents from the news and media group said they trusted news outlets, with 47% saying they had trust in social media and 20% in content circulating in chat and messaging groups.

(*Johanna Son is editor/founder of Reporting ASEAN. She led this survey project under the #fighttheinfodemic series, supported by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.)

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