Asia’s governments struggle to quash virus rumors

Mounting anxiety surrounding the coronavirus epidemic has governments in Asia scrambling to tamp down social media falsehoods that may fuel fear and lead to a breakdown in security or spread of dubious health information.

With global cases touching 9,825 across as many 19 countries, theories and news — mostly unverified — have flourished online across the world. They range from miracle cures and prevention to racist tropes and big-pharma conspiracy theories.

The struggle to stem the tide of bad information about the virus is a global one. But shutting down false social media posts and punishing people behind them is complicated in many Asian countries where such curbs have also been used to control criticism of governments.

“On one level, these measures can ably serve the public interest by ensuring that people are not barraged by false information, especially regarding something as critical as public health,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at Washington-based Wilson Center. “But the line is often blurred between genuine efforts to stamp out fake news and nefarious moves to control and suppress the flow of information. This is particularly the case in a region like Southeast Asia where authoritarianism is a very real concern.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-In on Thursday called producing and distributing disinformation about the virus a “grave criminal act.” Malaysia and Thailand have detained or pressed charges against people on the suspicion of violating contentious cybercrime laws.

Across Asia — where many health care systems are already rickety — governments are keen to show they’re able to handle the crisis as the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a health emergency.

In Thailand, authorities said they would press charges against seven people for posts that allegedly violate the country’s 2017 Computer Crimes Act. If convicted, they could face up to five years in prison and a fine of $3,200 (100,000 baht).

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha had previously warned the government would take action against those who incite online panic about the virus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has killed 213 people worldwide.

Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Center is also monitoring content that could pose “a risk to health and could damage the economy.” Puttipong Punnakan, the digital economy and society minister in charge of the center said Friday it had found 15 “sources” of fake news and arrested two people found in violation of cybercrime laws.

“Please don’t believe them. Don’t share rumors,” Prayuth said during a visit to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on Wednesday. “Please be confident in our health care system.”

Thailand’s military-backed government has been criticized for using laws such as the computer crimes legislation to clamp down on dissent.

Anti-China sentiment has proliferated on social media since the virus was discovered. It comes against the backdrop of long standing concerns about Beijing’s influence as it takes a more assertive stance in the South China Sea and pours billions into infrastructure projects throughout the region.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission and police said late Thursday they detained six people for posts containing false information on the virus. Police earlier said they were investigating Facebook and Twitter posts with misleading messages, including claims of an influx of Chinese tourists, new infections not announced by the government and virus-related deaths in the country.

Malaysia’s Senate had voted last month to repeal an anti-fake news law used to investigate Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during his election campaign. But on Wednesday Mahathir said the government could take legal action against news organizations using the virus to incite racial tensions in the predominantly Muslim country.

“This is an irresponsible act,” Mahathir said during a press conference. “The government will take action against those who deliberately publish fake news to scare Malaysians and spark hatred between the races in Malaysia.”

Police in Vietnam’s southern Ba Ria – Vung Tau province issued a $1,294 (30 million dong) fine to a man for posting “unverified information” on Facebook about two Chinese visitors who had been hospitalized, according to a Jan. 28 post on the government website.

Singapore invoked its fake news law on four occasions this week, instructing Facebook, users of the platform and publications to carry correction notices about posts and articles allegedly containing false information about the virus.

On Friday the government also lifted an exemption for Facebook, Google, Twitter and other internet intermediaries that shielded them from carrying so-called “general correction directions” that requires them to transmit government-ordered corrections to all Singapore end-users.

Facebook said several of its fact-checking partners around the world had rated content false, leading the media giant to reduce its distribution.

According to a Twitter blog, the company has seen some 15 million tweets on the subject over the last month. The company said in an emailed statement it was not seeing significant, coordinated attempts to spread disinformation about the virus but would remain vigilant to the threat.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has also condemned the spread of fake news and has denied rumors the government was blocking shipments of surgical masks.

Still, even as some countries are working to eliminate false news, others are contributing it.

India’s Press Information Bureau on Wednesday recommended homeopathic remedies to prevent the spread of the disease, including daily sesame oil drops and the use of herbal Ayurvedic balms.

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With assistance from Bloomberg’s Sunil Jagtiani, Yudith Ho, Claire Che, Kanga Kong, Yoolim Lee and Mai Ngoc Chau.

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