Hoax stories hamper Indonesia's Covid-19 fight

Hoax stories hamper Indonesia's Covid-19 fight

These days, Sisa Primashinta's smartphone pings often and brings her notifications -- not about social-media posts or from her chat messages, but about corrections to "information" that she accessed an hour or two earlier.

"I got photographs and videos that claim to be mass burials of dead Covid-19 patients or about the condition of people hospitalised for the pandemic [in Indonesia]," she said.

A little later on, she learns that all of these are "fake news", which are called "hoaxes" in Indonesia.

"By then, I already deleted the messages," said Ms Primashinta, a resident of Bogor, south of the capital Jakarta, who sells cutlery, batik pouches, placemats and masks on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. "My principle is simple. Anything that sounds negative or looks too scary, [I] delete instantly. For me, sharing hoaxes means spreading negative energy."

But not all internet users in Indonesia adopt Ms Primashinta's principle.

For instance, the secretary-general of the Ministry of Communication and Information, Rosarita Niken Widiastuti, says that her office alone -- one of several government and private initiatives trying to counter hoaxes -- has identified 857 "fake news" items related to Covid-19 until the second week of June. There were just six such items at the end of January.

"Police have named 104 people as suspects, 17 of them are now in detention, while the remainders are under investigation," Ms Widiastuti said, adding that her office has blocked the accounts that spread the 857 false items. Under Indonesia's electronic information and transaction law, those found guilty of spreading false information is punishable by up to six years in jail and fined up to 1 billion rupiah (about 2.1 million baht).

In mid-June, the country's police announced in a press conference that they had identified more than 130,000 hoaxes related to the pandemic in the past three months.

The abundance of false, invented, twisted or skewed "information" on social venues is such that health and government officials are finding these as big a risk to public health as Covid-19 itself -- in a country of more than 237 million that has the most total cases and fatalities in Southeast Asia to date.

Hoaxes have undermined efforts to educate people about the virus, points out Achmad Yurianto, spokesman of the Covid-19 Task Force.

"Hoax is always bad. We want people to stay calm, do not panic, and follow health protocols to deal with the pandemic. But with fake news abound, it's difficult to create a conducive atmosphere," Mr Yurianto said.

As of June 28, Indonesia's cumulative number of confirmed cases has reached 54,010. Deaths number 2,754, which makes for a case-recovery ratio of 5.1% or the highest in Southeast Asia. Death incidence due to Covid-19 is 1.17 per 100,000 people, second after the Philippines.

A review of Cekfakta, a website where journalists and fact-checkers debunk misinformation and disinformation, suggests that hoaxes mostly come in the form of misleading content, false context, fabrication, manipulation content, impostor content, and false association.

Of the 20 Covid-19-related hoaxes it featured until June 22, at least 14 were classified as misleading, and six as having false context. For May, it listed 79 Covid-19 hoaxes, with 32 being misleading content, 30 with false context, 15 fabricated content, and two impostor content.

In these examples, Facebook was the favourite platform used to spread Covid-19 hoaxes in May and June with 68, followed by WhatsApp 25, Twitter five, and YouTube one.

Cekfakta is a collaborative fact-checking and verification project involving the Indonesian Cyber Media Association (AMSI), Alliance of Indonesian Journalists, Indonesian Anti-Slander Society (Mafindo), Alliance of Independent Journalists, Google News Initiative, Internews and FirstDraft.

Mr Yurianto is worried that hoaxes have created distrust in government programmes dealing with the pandemic. "These statements, and many more, send out wrong signals that the virus is not life-threatening, and therefore people may not wear masks or keep distance or wash their hands," he said.

In early June, an online user in East Java, one of the provinces hit hardest by the pandemic, uploaded a video on social media where he called Covid-19 a hoax that the government created in order to embezzle public funds.

Claiming that the provincial capital Surabaya was in fact free from the virus, he said he was ready to inhale the air breathed out by Covid-19 patients. He later apologised for causing confusion but insisted that he had been misunderstood.

Recently, hoax messages have been targeted at discrediting health institutions and workers.

On June 6, a YouTube video suggested that hospitals were conspiring with doctors to sell the body parts of dead patients. Four days earlier, a WhatsApp message in Semarang, Central Java alleged that health workers were doing Covid-19 tests without changing surgical gloves. Doctors have been accused of "conniving" with hospitals to diagnose patients as positive for personal financial gain.

"These hoaxes have eroded the credibility of hospitals and paramedics as seen in people forcing to take home dead relatives for burial and not complying with health protocols," said social media analyst Ismail Fahmi.

In recent weeks, it has become common to see residents going out of their homes without face masks and not keeping a safe distance from others.

These hoaxes hurt ordinary people more than health workers because they undercut the messaging so crucial in a public health emergency, says Rosalin Maruf, a medical doctor at the state-owned Cipto Mangunkusumo Hospital.

"What is worrisome is people don't believe that the pandemic is life-threatening and thus don't want to follow health protocols. If these kind of behaviours continue, we still have a long way to go to be free from Covid-19."

Aribowo Sasmito, co-founder of Mafindo, concedes that debunking hoaxes in this "post-truth" era may not change the minds of people who already believe these, but still has to be done anyway.

"Clarification and verification always come late, often long after hoaxes have spread in the society, but we have to do it anyway," he explained. "If our clarification changes the perception of people who had believed in the hoaxes, it's good. But if not, at least we educate people -- and spare them from the dangers of hoaxes. In this case, what we are doing is a form of investment."

This feature is from Reporting Asean's 'Stories Behind the Covid-19 Stories' series.

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