As coronavirus spreads, so do spurious online claims about it in HK

03-Feb-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

A surge in fake news surrounding face masks in recent days has left the Hong Kong government and social media platforms trying to stem a tide of misinformation shared among city residents.

While worries of contracting the deadly coronavirus have prompted hundreds to wait hours each day to buy health supplies, one of several posts circulated online recently claimed the city’s police force was giving out free face masks.

“All district police stations will give out free face masks for pro-China residents to guard against the virus,” one post read.

The Hong Kong Police Force debunked the rumours on its social media accounts on Thursday afternoon, saying the claim was false.

The city’s government was also not supplying face masks to family members of officers, it added, saying that it must “squash such misinformation”.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor dismissed claims on Thursday that the government was stockpiling masks, or that the coverings were being transferred to mainland China, home to the outbreak’s epicentre.

“There was absolutely no truth in them,” she said.

Misinformation continued to spread among social media users in Hong Kong, along with scepticism of the government’s ability to handle the outbreak, as supplies of face masks and disinfectant ran low.

“Things get worse when people process misinformation with existing attitudes. Studies show that people are more likely to trust misinformation or fact-check messages consistent with their original world view

Wenting Yu, City University doctoral candidate

The contagious pathogen had infected more than 9,800 people across the world and killed 213 people all mainland Chinese citizens as of Friday afternoon.

In Hong Kong, 12 people had been diagnosed with the coronavirus, which is believed to have originated from a seafood market in the city of Wuhan, Hubei province.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared on Thursday that the pneumonia-like virus, which can spread between humans, was a health emergency of “global concern”.

As misleading claims surrounding the coronavirus turned into a global phenomenon, Facebook said in a statement on Friday that it was using third-party fact checkers and relying on health organisations to flag harmful content such as “false cures and prevention methods” on its platform.

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The social media giant admitted, however, that its measures were works in progress.

“It will take some time to roll them out across Facebook’s platforms and step up their enforcement methods,” it said.

Facebook followed other social media platforms in curbing the spread of false information, as Twitter said on Wednesday that users searching for the hashtag “#coronavirus” would be steered to credible sources, such as the WHO.

Video-streaming platform YouTube would prioritise credible sources related to the coronavirus in its algorithm, The Washington Post reported earlier this week.

Experts said misinformation especially eye-popping headlines or captivating images drew high emotional responses from viewers who are already worried about the outbreak, increasing the likelihood that they read and share it.

While no easy solution exists to fight misinformation, vigorous fact-checking organisations and vigilant users can help contain the spread, they added.

Mistrust in the government, already high as a result of the months-long protest movement, makes fighting misinformation even more difficult, said Wenting Yu, a doctoral candidate at City University’s department of media and communication.

“Things get worse when people process misinformation with existing attitudes,” she said. “Studies show that people are more likely to trust misinformation or fact-check messages consistent with their original world view.”

Even politicians can distribute false claims and add to confusion. Pro-Beijing legislator Ann Chiang Lai-wan, for example, posted a controversial video that said face masks could be steamed and reused.

Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection, a government agency, warned residents in a Facebook post on Thursday against the practice.

“Surgical masks can be washed, steamed and reused?! Don’t believe in these rumours!” it said.

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Despite criticism from experts and other lawmakers, Chiang defended the method, calling it “better than being outside with no mask on”.

Posts like Chiang’s could be considered misinformation, but prosecuting those involved would give the government power to stifle speech, said Charles Mok, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and an advocate for freedom of information in the city.

“Everyone’s looking for an easy way to handle misinformation, but there’s a huge cost to giving authorities [power] to decide what is fact and what is misinformation,” he said.

Prosecuting people who spread rumours would require proof of malicious intent, and Hong Kong does not currently have specific laws to charge offenders, Mok said.

Section 161 of the Crimes Ordinance once allowed police to prosecute people who used computers, including smartphones, to commit crimes. But that changed in April of 2019, when the Court of Final Appeal said the law did not apply to people using their own devices.

Most people sharing misinformation on social media do not mean any harm, and do so to help their friends and family, said Masato Kajimoto, a journalism professor at Hong Kong University.

Kajimoto, who studies misinformation and runs a student fact-checking team, said that while misinformation spreads quickly in the social media age, accurate information could do so too.

“If people are a bit more aware of the potential impact of spreading rumours, it can be stopped in time too,” he said.

While experts may verify information, it is important for individuals to check whether a message is true or not by themselves, said Yu, the doctoral candidate.

“Ask yourself the following questions when you are reading online messages: Is this the updated information? Does the picture match the post? Be more cautious about the source,” she said.


Category: Hong Kong

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