Stronger alliance of civil society and media in Asia called to fight infodemic

Cofact webinar

Strengthening the role of independent media and the civil society, and the promotion of accurate information and media literacy at both local and national levels are critical elements to fight the infodemic in the time of COVID-19, journalists and rights advocates in Asia agreed at an online seminar on 14 April 2020.

Speakers at the webinar, titled “How to handle COVID-19 infodemic in Asia?”, said the role of media and the civil society was much more important now than ever, not only to cover the pandemic but also to ensure transparency in the public debate about the government’s responses and actions to this health crisis and the states’ governance in exercising their powers and implementing those measures.

The seminar, organised by Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) Thailand, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), Thai Health Promotion Foundation, and civic-action initiative - ChangeFusion was coincided with the official launch of Cofact.org Thailand, the collaborative fact checking initiative that was modelled after Taiwan’s civic and tech community fact checkers Cofact to fight the spread of online disinformation in Thailand.

The regional online discussion comes on the heels of a growing concern over the impact of the disinformation and hate speech related to the pandemic on the effective control of the outbreak and the pre-existing conflicts confronting countries in the region. Governments of Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea already applied the state of emergency measures to a varying degree to address the pandemic, raising fear that these measures would be disproportionately applied to curb free speech and undermine people’s right to privacy.

In the Philippines, National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has issued 17 summonses over “fake news” posts as of April 2. In Indonesia, police empowered with “the state declaration of national disaster” is clamping down online expression, targeting not only statements that cause social chaos or fear disruption also the ones that attack on the government. Thai authorities already charged a Facebook user who criticised the government’s airport control measure as inadequate, and banned journalists from covering incidents during the curfew hours.

Joining the online discussion were Ms. Marites Vitug, Editor-at-large of Philippines’ social news network Rappler, Mr. Premesh Chandran, CEO and founder of Malaysia’s online news site Malaysiakini, Mr. Endy Bayuni, senior editor of Indonesia’s national English-language daily The Jakarta Post, Ms. Supinya Klangnarong, Co-founder of Cofact.org, Dr. Christian Teaks, Head of FNF Korea, Adam Cooper, Senior Programme Manager on Cyber-Mediation of HD.

Cofact speakers

The discussion, moderated by Frederic Spohr, Head of FNF Thailand and Myanmar, centered on the response of the government and the society including the media to the outbreak, and how they have been dealing with the disinformation issues so far.

In Thailand, the spread of disinformation in health sector has long been problematic prior to the COVID-19. According to Klangnarong, the current situation was worsening because of the government’s initial unclear communication about its response to the outbreak which left the public confused and caused misunderstanding and resistance in some sectors.

While the government’s communication was much improved, Klangnarong said it was necessary for the society to have a non-partisan community of fact checkers comprising civil society, media and individuals to help with the communication. “I disagree that the government should be the center in fighting fake news (as it is now), although the government holds the right to reply as far as their policy and its implementation regarding the handling of the crisis are concerned,” she said.

In the Philippines, Vitug called it “the perfect storm” facing journalists in both covering the COVID-19 outbreak and fighting the disinformation on the one hand and defending free speech on the other. Quite similar to Thailand, Vitug said a lot of disinformation was about the cure for the coronavirus (which caused the COVID-19 disease). Among the four categories of disinformation she pointed out, which also included misinformation about politicians, government response, and information that sow fear and discrimination, the more troubling one was the source of false information coming from the trio--President Duterte, his health secretary, and his spokesperson. There were a lot of false claims coming out of this source mainly to legitimize the government’s handling of the health crisis. For example, Duterte claimed he warned about the coronavirus at the start where, in fact, he said the Philippines had low coronavirus infections.

The editor said the fact checking community’s response was active and vigorous in fighting against the information disorder. There are already two media organisations that took the lead in this endeavor in collaboration with Google, Rappler and Vera Files. The fact-checking Facebook community run by the civil society in collaboration with Vera Files has also been active long before the virus outbreak. However, she said the concern was the disinformation that was spreading through messaging apps which was not public.

Cofact fake news

In Malaysia, Chandran said the media and the civil society has vigorously played their parts to hold the government account to the policy and actions to address the health hazardousness including attempt to control online expression in the time of COVID-19.  “There were a lot of online activism and push back from the civil society against the government’s policy responses that the later had to retract certain measures,” Chandran said. The public also did their part in sharing accurate information about the pandemic. The Malaysiakini’s CEO said the concern now was the media capacity to cover the news about the pandemic and fight the infodemic. He said the media already suffered financially prior to the pandemic and that the limited access to the government sources as part of the control movement measure in fighting the pandemic in Malaysia has hampered journalists from questioning politicians and policy makers face to face.

In Indonesia, the spread of the disinformation about the COVID-19 is less acute than the situation in 2019 during the general elections where the society was divisive and polarised.  Rather, Bayuni said the government and the private organisations were actively working alongside to stamp out on hoaxes ad fake news. According to the editor, the Ministry of Communication and Information has called out 1,096 postings about the COVID-19 between January 23 and April 6. Facebook took down 303 out of 759 posts, Twitter and Instagram did the same, 53 out of 321 message and 3 of 10 messages, respectively. Editors in different news rooms informally shared information about the pandemic and crossed check to ensure accuracy of the information before publishing it on their news outlets. Bayuni said it was necessary that the media strictly observe its code of ethics and professionalism now to ensure accuracy and balance of information gathered, and hold the power accountable to the public.

ASEAN COVID-19

In South Korea, the disinformation about the pandemic did not have much impact on the society thanks to the government’s quick and consistent communication with the public.  Taaks said local governments also had their own websites and blogs that were sending out messages to the public every day. He said there was also a joint fact checking initiative, hosted by the South Korea National University in partnership with the government’s Center of Disease Control, trusted media outlets working to debunk fake news about the COVID-19.

“The key to the success of the government in coping with the crisis is the 4Ts which are transparency, testing, tracking and treatment that won the public trust,” he said.

Cooper from HD said he was deeply concerned with the rising of hate speech on social media in the time of COVID-19 outbreak, which was not only unique to this region but also across the globe.

Cooper noted that there was a disproportionate focus on part of the government and the public in addressing the impact of such infodemic on the pre-existing conflicts and less international policy attention to the spread of hate speech and discriminatory statements targeting minorities and religious groups in the conflicts-inflicted areas or regions. “It is likely that this has a serious potential to exacerbate the pre-existing conflicts and tensions,” he said adding that “it would not be surprising to see the increasing use of a reference to this virus as the Muslim disease, and the trend is likely to increase in coming weeks”.

To address this information crisis, he suggested the promotion of accurate information such as using the information kits of World Health Organisation (WHO) as an authoritative source in the mainstream media and up ranking it in the news was one of the ways. The use of local language contents in the conflicted areas and making them relevant to the local context, and working with local organisations which have deep trust of the local people, to spread accurate information would be a creative approach, he added.