Tackling fake news amid a coronavirus outbreak

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A man uses a scarf to cover his face as people wear face masks in Phnom Penh on January 30, after the first case of novel coronavirus was reported in the country. AFP

Amid the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that has infected more than 14,000 people worldwide and caused over 360 deaths, false claims and fake news about the spread of the virus are on the rise.

In Cambodia, fake news is not a new phenomenon. It is actually a buzzword that is becoming a new normal among Cambodians, particularly the political elites and youth.

As many Cambodians are now turning to social media, particularly Facebook, for their daily information intake, fake news and misinformation have a good chance to spread in Cambodian society.

Unlike in traditional media, information on platforms like Facebook can be shared quickly and easily, enabling fake news to spread quickly as many Facebook users tend to like and share whatever they see on Facebook without a second thought.

It is believed that the credibility of information, that is, where the information comes from or whether it is true or false seems to be of little concern to many Cambodian Facebook users. Clicking “like” and “share” is perhaps the most important thing to many of them.

As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world and the death toll keeps increasing, fear and panic among Cambodian people grow. This is exacerbated by fake news on social media and uncertainty regarding the transmission, prevention and treatment of the virus.

During a press conference about the new coronavirus on January 30, Prime Minister Hun Sen called on journalists and major media outlets in the country to fight against fake news and misinformation on social media by reporting the truth and accurate information concerning the current state of the virus. He said “fake news is more dangerous than the virus itself.”

The Cambodian Ministry of Health on January 27 confirmed the first case of the coronavirus in the country’s coastal city of Sihanoukville. The patient was a 60-year-old Chinese national flown from Wuhan, China with his three family members who were under observation at the Preah Sihanouk provincial referral hospital.

According to Chinese aviation data, later confirmed by the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation of Cambodia, more than 3,000 Chinese nationals from Wuhan flew into the Kingdom before the Chinese authorities imposed a lockdown on the virus-hit city.

Given the fact that these Chinese people from Wuhan are now in Cambodia, a lot of fake news has been circulated on social media platforms with misleading claims that there are other Chinese nationals who have contracted the deadly virus. This creates a climate of fear and anxiety among many Cambodians living in Phnom Penh and other tourist cities, particularly Sihanoukville.

To tackle this situation, various measures have been taken by the Cambodian authorities to curb the proliferation of fake news about the novel coronavirus, including detaining and cautioning several people who allegedly posted fake news about the virus.

The Ministry of Health has also endeavored to update and educate the public on how to protect themselves from the virus through ongoing announcements, news updates, lectures and press conferences.

Other ministries such as Ministry of Information and Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport have also done their part to combat fake news. However, more needs to be done to reduce the amount of fake news being produced and prevent its widespread dissemination.

An effective long-term measure for combating fake news is no doubt through education that can instill an awareness of the danger of fake news.

In Cambodia, youth or young people under the age of 30 make up almost two-thirds of the population. These people are known to be active and regular consumers of social media. They could be potential victims of fake news if they are not aware of its repercussions resulting from their uncritical acceptance of information on social media.

They therefore have to educate themselves on how to deal with fake news and use social media responsibly. They should engage in further reading and research to understand the causes and consequences of fake news and help prevent its spread.

Most importantly, they should refrain themselves from sharing any information they see, particularly information that comes from low quality or unrecognized sources.

Educational institutions of all levels and other relevant institutions play a key role in educating youth and the public to prevent themselves from contributing to the spread of fake news and misinformation. They should continue to engage in various awareness-raising activities such as workshops, training, panel discussions, and other educational events to bring the issues of fake news to public attention.

Everyone should be constantly reminded that sharing misinformation on social media without care and responsibility is akin to spreading fake news and taking part in spoiling their own society. They should try to avoid becoming facilitators of fake news.

In fact, both hard and soft measures are necessary to fight against fake news now during the coronavirus outbreak and in the future. But education should be seen as a long-term solution to this issue.

Without a basic understanding of the impact of fake news, everyone can become fake news purveyors, often without their knowledge or intention.

Combating fake news is not the responsibility of the government or anyone alone. It is everyone’s responsibility and requires concerted efforts from all stakeholders, especially the individuals and educational institutions.

Kimkong Heng is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland and a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.