HONG KONG – Governments across Asia are stepping up arrests over growing misinformation on the coronavirus outbreak, even as outrage grows in China over how virus whistleblowers — one of whom, a doctor, has now died — were punished for spreading falsehoods.
Hong Kong police this week nabbed a part-time security guard at a shopping mall for allegedly writing on social media that multiple staff members had caught a fever and gone on sick leave. The messages “caused panic” and helped “breed paranoia,” police said on Facebook. The government also blamed “evil” rumormongers for fueling a run on goods such as toilet paper and rice.
Arrests of more than 20 people across six countries show the extent to which governments are policing social media as they seek to prevent panic and further economic damage. Authorities in Malaysia, India, Indonesia and Thailand have all joined China in cracking down on “misinformation” or “fake news” with arrests and the threat of jail time.
It is all part of what the World Health Organization calls a “massive infodemic” of informational abundance, some of it inaccurate, which makes it hard for people to find credible sources and reliable guidance when they need it.
Governments also risk censoring legitimate information in their efforts to stop rumors, which could further hurt efforts to contain the virus, as was the case when doctors in the epicenter of the virus were punished for spreading “rumors” about the viral outbreak more than a month ago.
“China’s early efforts to control the narrative around the outbreak severely stunted its initial response to the spread of the coronavirus,” said Matthew Bugher, the Asia head for Article 19, a British rights group supporting free expression. “It’s extremely worrying that governments in Southeast Asia appear to be following China’s example.”
Sylvie Briand, the WHO’s director for global infectious hazard preparedness, told reporters in Geneva this week that handling misinformation is “a challenge of the 21st century.” The organization’s technical risk communication and social media teams have been tracking and responding to myths and rumors on the virus across Weibo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest.
“We’re all beneficiaries of those extremely intense and fast communications, and we can also be victims of it,” Briand said. “The thing is not censorship, it’s trying to understand what are people concerned about and how to respond.”
The region’s authorities have taken a different approach. Malaysia’s attorney general promised charges after authorities detained six for posts with false information on the virus. Police earlier said they were investigating social media posts with misleading messages, including claims of an influx of Chinese tourists, new infections and virus-related deaths in the country.
“Lies about the origins, scale and magnitude of the disease must not be permitted, because they endanger public safety,” said Attorney General Tommy Thomas in a statement on Wednesday.
In Thailand, authorities said Thursday they had arrested four people for posts that allegedly violated the 2017 Computer Crimes Act, which carries sentences of as long as five years in prison. India has arrested five people on suspicion of spreading rumors on the whereabouts of patients. Indonesia arrested two people on charges of spreading fake news related to the coronavirus. They face as much as 10 years in prison, according to Indonesian police spokesman Argo Yuwono.
Police in Vietnam fined a man for posting “unverified information” on Facebook about two Chinese visitors who had been hospitalized. Singapore invoked its fake news law instructing Facebook, users of the platform and publications to carry correction notices about posts and articles allegedly containing false information about the virus.
“During SARS, we did not have social media,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told reporters in Jan. 31 comments posted on his website. “We are very diligent in putting out information as quickly as we get it, and as quickly as we can verify it, in order to make sure that people know what it is, what is the truth, what you need to worry about and what you should ignore.”
One risk with all these arrests is that authorities censor useful information. Chinese officials punished a doctor in Wuhan for blowing the whistle on a cover-up of the spread of the new virus in the early days of the outbreak.
The doctor, Li Wenliang, was one of eight whistleblowers punished by police in January for “spreading rumors.” In a Weibo post, he said he had examined a medical report of a patient Dec. 30 that looked like SARS, also caused by a coronavirus. He shared the finding with some former medical school classmates so they could take precautions, in a WeChat group message that said, “Seven cases of SARS confirmed.”
“The police found me and made me sign an official letter of criticism after I sent the message,” said Li, who died Friday after he was infected with the virus as he worked to fight against the outbreak. He posted a photo of the letter, in which Wuhan police castigated him for false statements that “disturbed the social order.”
The Wuhan police said Jan. 1 that eight people were summoned and punished for “spreading rumors” about pneumonia patients, though the bureau later restricted viewing access to the Weibo post.
The Supreme People’s Court later criticized the police department for punishing a whistleblower in a post on the court’s WeChat account, noting that the information shared wasn’t entirely false and that the public may have been able to curtail the spread of the disease had it responded by tightening health measures in Wuhan.
The police responded that the whistleblowers faced “mild” punishment of education and criticism, and weren’t taken into custody or fined.
“Government efforts to control the flow of information are dangerous and often counterproductive,” said Article 19’s Bugher. “Truth and transparency are the best tonic for misinformation. Asian governments would be wise to prioritize their own public awareness efforts over attempt to police public discourse on the crisis.”
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