BY TAN SU LIN
Each day, we are bombarded by misinformation on COVID-19, especially on social media. This situation makes it difficult for users to distinguish between facts and fake news. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called this an “infodemic” where fake news spreads faster and more easily than the coronavirus, and is just as dangerous.
To address these issues, the Science Media Centre (SMC) Malaysia in collaboration with the Medical Mythbusters Malaysia hosted a webinar recently to discuss the impact of the fake news on the COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar was moderated by Tan Su Lin, co-founder of SMC Malaysia.
The panelists who comprised of psychiatry, media practitioner and science communications experts analysed the key issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic in Malaysia. They were Dr Ahmad Rostam Md Zin, Psychiatric Consultant and member of Medical Mythbusters Malaysia; Hafidah Samat, Senior Executive Editor Astro AWANI and Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan, Science Communication Expert.
The panelists discussed various issues from the impact of the pandemic on the psyche of social media users, to the effects of spreading fake news and pseudoscience, and the “new norms” in media practice including fact-checkers during COVID-19 coverage. The panelists also shared tips on distinguishing fake news and facts during the webinar.
Dr Ahmad Rostam opined while fake news is not a new phenomenon, it had worsened as the country entered the pandemic phase where people began to feel anxious, confused and scared.
“The anxiety that they are feeling causes them to seek answers right away. Those on the receiving end of such fake news are neither scientists nor health professionals. So whatever ‘news’ especially about people’s health, they feel it is supposedly true.”
“In fact, if you noticed, some false news will quote names of doctors in order to seem ‘credible’, for example, doctors from abroad, even though that person does not exist,” he said while adding another reason people spread fake news is to increase “likes” and “shares”.
Dr Ahmad Rostam also quoted author Dr Mary Aiken in explaining the media literacy gap especially among the elderly.
“For the older generation, they are not used to how the cyber world functions and this has led them to be easily influenced by the news in the cyber world as compared to the society who had grown up in the cyber world,” he said in response to a study that described older people over the age of 60 years old are more likely to spread fake news.
Aiken in her book entitled ‘Cyber Effect’ described the world is divided into two groups, the ‘cyber citizens’, those born or raised in the post-2000s cyber era and the ‘cyber immigrants’ born before the cyber world.
“That is why most of the fake news is spread by our aunties and uncles around the age of 50 to 70 through various Whatsapp groups and social media platforms.”
“They think that whatever is being conveyed through the cyber world is right and so they continue to share,” he added.
Meanwhile, Hafidah noted the dissemination of fake news which some are old news but reshared by others.
“Sometimes the fake news is old but somehow it resurfaced and is picked up by someone who reshared it causing them to go viral. This action is believed to be widespread.”
“This has created an unease and angry sentiment among the public and especially while being stuck in their homes during the MCO period,” she said, while citing the practice of fact-checking as an important element of the ‘new normal’ in newsrooms.
She also suggested media literacy to be included as a subject in the education system to overcome the spread of fake news.
“Fake news will continue to stay with us for a longer period of time as technology advances. It is hard for us to control it. So it would be best if identifying fake news becomes a major element in mass communication education or subjects. This is an important subject to be included in perhaps the tertiary level so that more people are made aware of the differences between fake news and fact,” she said.
Describing the spread of pseudoscience are also rampant during this COVID-19 pandemic period, Dr Mahaletchumy was of the view that scientists should come forward to clarify the inaccurate news related to COVID-19.
“Scientists need to come down from their ivory tower or laboratories and present the facts to the public. If you tell the public to read the science journals, they will never understand.”
“Therefore, scientists play an important role. They need to find ways to communicate science better to the general public, for example using social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to provide information and facts,” she said.