The Covid infodemic: To err is human, to share is criminal?

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By Harris Zainul

In this fear-heightened landscape of Covid-19, our better-safe-than-sorry approach to sharing information could land us in hot water with authorities. In this analysis, Harris Zainul questions if the government’s trigger-happy response to prosecuting wrongdoers is necessarily the right approach.

By now Covid-19 is a worrying fact of life. Also a fact of life is how the onset of the pandemic has brought about a sense of nervousness, anxiety and concern among the general public. 

At times like these, the public crave information they feel would allow them to stay safe and healthy. Taking this to its natural extension is that the people would only want to seek out and share information with their loved ones if they feel it could be beneficial for them, too. In other words, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

What is regrettable, however, is that it is coinciding with what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has deemed to be the “infodemic”. This refers to a situation where there is “an overabundance 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 above together essentially means at a time when people crave information and would want to pass on that seemingly credible information, there is an overabundance of potentially false news and facts out there. Considering this, the government’s strategy to deter would-be creators of false information by warning and
prosecuting those who create false information tend to miss the mark. 

Generally, this is because aside from cases of genuine bad apples in society who are intentionally creating and disseminating disinformation, many others could actually be unintentionally creating and/or sharing false or misleading information, often with the best of intentions.

Types of false/‘fake news’

  1. Dis-informationFalse information intended to cause harm to an individual, group organisation and/or country (eg. lies to create panic).
  2. Mis-informationFalse information, but which is not intended to cause harm (eg. misheard/outdated information).
  3. Mal-informationReal or true information but which is intended to cause harm (eg. twisting the truth by withholding key information).

Source: Ethical Journalism Network

The deterrence strategy essentially places the onus on the people to determine for themselves what is truthful and accurate, and what is not. Make the wrong call, and the person could be open to prosecution.

Complicating matters here is that the legal provisions being utilised, namely Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998 and the Section 505(b) of the Penal Code make, literally, no reference to the creation of false information. To be sure, the former makes the “improper use of network facilities” an offence, while the latter criminalises “statements conducive to public mischief”. 

Worse is how these provisions are incredibly vague in its meanings, which translates to a disproportionately broad applicability. Essentially, when determining whether content is potentially illegal, the net is cast very wide. 

To be certain, both Pakatan Harapan and the current Perikatan Nasional governments are “guilty” of relying on either one (or both) of these legal provisions to deal with Covid-19 false information. In fact, as at Sept 28, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) reportedly opened 268 investigation papers on disinformation pertaining to the coronavirus since the start of the Movement Control Order (MCO) in March.

Image by Ruth Burrows. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives.

Besides that, due to the legalese in these provisions, it is not surprising that they are unable to signal to the public what are unacceptable behaviours. This affects the people’s ability to understand and appreciate the meaning of these legislations.

Accordingly, how can the public be expected to understand and appreciate that creating false information pertaining to Covid-19 or even sharing unverified information thought to be true but is actually false or misleading is a crime, and regulates their conduct appropriately? 

This, especially when fear and panic over rising cases would have prompted them to believe time was of the essence, and swift dissemination of “facts” the key to survival. Do we really want to be prosecuting people for honest mistakes? 

Take for example, this case back in August when a 33-year-old trader was arrested and investigated under Section 233 of the CMA for allegedly falsely claiming a supermarket in Bandar Sunway had closed after a customer was diagnosed with Covid-19. The woman had claimed she had only intended to warn friends, after receiving the alert on social media. 

Or this case in February in which a woman was jailed under Section 505(b) for allegedly sharing unverified information about a case at a Cheras mall. In the latter case, however, it was unclear if the accused had done so with malicious or sincere intent.

As stated by psychology professors Prashant Bordia and Nicholas DiFonzo in the book Rumor Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend:

Rumours arise and spread when people are uncertain and anxious about a topic of personal relevance and when the rumour seems credible given the sensibilities of the people involved in the spread.”

Digital literacy skills left wanting

To holistically tackle this problem, the Malaysian government must take the first step to understand the characteristics of Covid-19-related false information — what exactly are the false claims being made; the medium it is circulated on; the apparent motivation behind the creation of the false information; or whether it had contained an element of imposter content, where the false claim is made out to be as if from a source of authority.

Type of imposter content, by number of debunks and clarifications:
**Source: Harris Zainul

To be sure, answering these questions is no easy task as it would require significant resources and manpower to scour the internet, social media platforms, and communication applications (that are often encrypted). 

Attempting to do the same, in a recent policy paper I co-authored with my colleague Farlina Said, we took to sampling more than 350 individual pieces of false information related to Covid-19 as fact-checked by Sebenarnya.my, the MCMC-run fact-checking portal, as rough proxy for the volume of false information on the novel coronavirus in the country.

These samples were drawn from January to mid-June 2020, and the period covers Malaysia’s earliest Covid-19 positive case, to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Malaysia, and the consequent MCO. Of course this data source was not perfect, and we do not claim that it presents a representative picture of Covid-19-related false information, but absent any other feasible alternative it was the best we could make do with. 

Our findings suggest the most common apparent motivation behind the creation of the false information — which make up 91 percent of cases we analysed — was either to troll, to provoke or due to genuine belief in the information itself.

We also found that the most common type of authority impersonated is the government, while the most popular false claim made — 70 percent — was either regarding some sort of action taken by the authorities or on the spread of Covid-19 within our communities, such as specific banks or other popular public spaces. Meanwhile, the medium most popular where false information had circulated were WhatsApp (39 percent) and Facebook (34 percent).

Apparent motivation, by number of debunks and clarifications:
**Source: Harris Zainul

More importantly, the findings highlight the complexity in inferring good or malicious intent based solely on content and how the process in determining whether a false claim is misinformation or disinformation, i.e. unintentionally or intentionally misleading or false, is a difficult one. Understanding this would of course have implications on any potential legislation to regulate disinformation.

So what to do?

To be sure, it is not to say that there is no room for prosecution of those who deliberately create false information to deceive and/or cause harm. This is as those who intentionally release health-related false information exploits evolutionary biases in human cognition that explain why humans are more engaged with information on potential threats, as compared to other kinds of information, as it offers an advantage in keeping humans from danger. 

Having said that, prosecutions should, at most, only play a complementary role in the government’s fight against Covid-19 false information. Instead, the government should be focusing on addressing the human element—where people are more likely to want to share information they feel could be beneficial to others during this unprecedented pandemic. 

Failing to do so, essentially leaving the onus on the people to determine for themselves what is accurate or not, is unfair. This is especially when considering plans to instil digital literacy skills among the public — such as how to fact-check (see video below) potentially false information, cross reference news sources, and reverse image searching and photo to see if it has appeared in another context before — remains in the rudimentary stage.

Here, it must be emphasised that the public service announcements to “pastikan sahih” (ensure its veracity) and “tidak pasti jangan kongsi” (don’t share if you’re unsure) while catchy, do nothing to equip the people with much-needed skills to ensure the veracity of information.

Instead, the government must be playing a more active role in educating the public, rather than prosecuting those that could genuinely not have known any better.

Harris Zainul is an analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia. His current work mainly focuses on the nexus between the information environment, policy, democracy and human rights.

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