Myanmar grappling with infodemic
Covid hoaxes mutate as pandemic drags on
Be it false claims that drinking liquor or ginger juice will repel Covid-19, or that eating leaves of the neem tree will protect one from it, Facebook user Pa Pa has encountered them all in the varied, virulent strains of misinformation thriving around the pandemic in Myanmar.
“Claims that eating a certain number of eggs at specific times or that citing a religious mantra can make you fully recover from the virus are common false news,” recalled Pa Pa, a 30-year-old employee who lives in Yangon.
But the strains of misinformation and disinformation in Myanmar have also been adapting to the times, four months into a major Covid-19 outbreak that picked up in August and shows little sign of easing soon in this Southeast Asian country of nearly 55 million people. Now that attention is on the use of new vaccines in North America and Europe, misinformation trends have followed this shift too.
A lot of vaccine-related misinformation are distortions that come from authentic news, says Nyein Chan, programme manager with the Myanmar ICT Development Organisation (Mido), the earliest fact-checking group in the country and a member of the US-based International Fact-Checking Network.
These false and misleading content are then amplified by closed, Burmese-language Facebook groups around Covid-19 that have become efficient clusters of online liars. Each group can have from 1,000 to 9,000 members, explains Nyein Chan.
In short, the infodemic around Covid-19, a term that refers to an overload of information that is often false or unverified, is going strong nearly a year after the pandemic reached Southeast Asia. The region’s first case was reported on Jan 13 and Myanmar reported its first one in late March. Myanmar reported having 115,187 confirmed Covid-19 cases as of Dec 19, making it third in total numbers in Southeast Asia, after Indonesia and the Philippines. It reported 2,424 deaths, so that the country’s case fatality rate of 2.1% ranks third after Indonesia and Vietnam, and its death incidence of 4.51 (out of 100,000 people) comes third too after the Philippines’ 9.36 and Indonesia’s 7.34.
A year into the pandemic, fact-checkers like Mido can give a better diagnosis of the misinformation and disinformation picture around Covid-19.
According to Mido programme manager Nyein Chan, the top five pieces of Covid-19 misinformation are claims that eating neem leaves would protect people from the virus, that flu vaccines and traditional medicine work with Covid-19, that the virus was made in a laboratory, as well as false reports about relief packages and wrong information about business tycoons’ contributions of financial and medical assistance to the government.
Mido screens and selects about 50 pieces of news and content to do checks on daily. Each month, it also receives some 1,000 audience requests to check specific information, says programme director Phyu Phyu Thi.
In the last five years, fact-checking activity in Myanmar has grown sizeably given the country’s challenges around disinformation, misinformation and hate speech, and lack of news and digital literacy skills amid a boom in online access and social-platform usage. These have been taking place in a society that is polarized by political and ethnic tensions, as well as armed conflict, in Myanmar’s supposed transition to a more democratic society over the past decade.
In fact, misinformation, disinformation and malinformation around politics and the pandemic mixed and led to new hoaxes, including during the time leading to the November national election.
One viral hoax had it that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has Covid-19, and that the person Myanmar citizens are seeing is just a clone.
“False-news dynamics are changing, depending on social and political issues. For instance, [the level of] misinformation is higher than disinformation in the time of Covid-19. But the disinformation issue is seen a lot in racial and religious situations," said Phyu Phyu Thi. Misinformation is incorrect or false or information, while disinformation refers to such information produced with the deliberate intent to deceive.
Mido’s Nyein Chan adds that misinformation related to Covid-19 causes panic, while those related to politics fans mistrust among different groups.
Today, there are six locally based fact-checking organisations in Myanmar. While some media outlets such as the independent Myanmar Now have occasionally gone into fact-checking, most other media outlets do not do this regularly. Other fact checkers, such as civil society groups, are found outside news circles.
Myanmar needs 50 to 100 fact-checking groups to better address its false news problems, Toe Zaw Latt, country director for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), believes. The number of Facebook users in Myanmar exceeded 27 million as of November.
"That [number of fact-checking groups] is not enough, actually. Twenty-seven million is a huge population on Facebook, so the fact-checking [being done now] is like feeding sesame seeds to an elephant," DVB’s Toe Zaw Latt said. Until 2015, Mido’s Real or Not website was the only local group producing fact-checking news. The Think Before You Trust website, by the civil society group Burma Monitor, followed in 2017.
Newer fact-checking ventures have emerged from pilot funding for six Myanmar-based groups, provided by the Danish Embassy’s TechPlomacy initiative just before the November vote. These funds went to four news groups, namely DVB Burmese, Mizzima Broadcasting, Frontier Myanmar and Mon News Agency, and two non-media ones, Real Or Not and Think Before You Trust, says Letyar Tun of International Media Support (IMS)-Myanmar, which manages the Danish funds.
The variety among fact-checkers and the different skills they are good at — whether they are more technology-based or more journalistically focused — can only strengthen the information network in Myanmar, Letyar Tun says.
For example, experienced fact-checkers are good at writing and debunking content, but weaker in doing verification with authorities and public figures. Media organisations can be better at verification and hunting down sources. "Journalism and doing fact checks are heads and tails of a coin. They can't be separated," Letyar Tun said.
"Media and information literacy awareness for the public is necessary. Otherwise, we will always be in second place behind false news, and exhausted in the long run," said Mido's Phyu Phyu Thi.
Moe Myint is a Yangon-based journalist who has reported extensively on the Rakhine conflict and Rohingya-related issues. This feature is part of the Reporting Asean series.