An alliance of media and social thinkers in Asia discussed comparative efforts to tackle ‘infodemic’ in time of Covid-19 pandemic in the region
Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, which countries can still not see the way to bring it to an end easily, media actors and civil society members from across Southeast Asia e-met a few weeks ago to address the spread of false news and disinformation that could further impact both social stability and efforts to address the pandemic.
Held at the launch of CoFact.org Thailand, a webinar “How to handle Covid-19 infodemic in Asia?”, saw the group agreed on the important role of media and the civil society in not only covering the pandemic, but also in ensuring transparency in public debates about government responses and actions to the health crisis.
The webinar was co-organised by Thai Health Promotion Foundation, ChangeFusion, the Thai Media Fund, Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) Thailand, and Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD).
It comes on the heels of 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.
As launched, CoFact.org will develop an online platform and network that can identify and counter sources of misinformation and false news. Longer term, the new body and its alliances hope to cultivate a culture of greater digital literacy and help media outlets, governments and community groups manage the flow of information responsibly.
Moderated by Frederic Spohr, FNF’s Head of Thailand and Myanmar, the discussion also centered on the response of the government and the society including the media to the outbreak, along with how they dealt with the disinformation issues so far.
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.
Joining the online discussion were Editor-at-large of Philippines’ social news network Rappler Marites Vitug, CEO and founder of Malaysia’s online news site Malaysiakini Premesh Chandran, senior editor of Indonesia’s national English-language daily The Jakarta Post Endy Bayuni, Co-founder of www.Cofact.org, Supinya Klangnarong, Head of Office Korea of Friedrich Naumann Foundation Dr. Christian Teaks, and Senior Programme Manager on Cyber-Mediation from the Centre of Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) Adam Cooper.
“In this crisis, the importance of journalism and a strong civil society becomes crystal clear: A well-informed public saves human lives and protects democracy”, said Frederic Spohr, Head of Office, Thailand and Myanmar, Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
In Thailand, the spread of disinformation in health sector has long been problematic prior to the Covid-19.
According to Supinya, the current situation was worsening rather 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 as of now, Supinya 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.
In the Philippines, Marites 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.
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.
In Malaysia, Premesh said the media and the civil society have 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,” Premesh said.
The public also did their part in sharing the 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.
In Indonesia, the spread of the disinformation about the Covid-19 was less acute than the situation in 2019 during the general elections where the society was divisive and polarised.
Rather, Endy said the government and the private organisations were actively working alongside to stamp out on hoaxes ad fake news.
Endy 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 account to the public.
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.
Dr. Christian from FNF’s 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.
Adam Cooper from the Centre of Humanitarian Dialogue 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.
“This is likely to have the potential to exacerbate pre-existing conflicts and tensions,” he said.
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