Thursday 30 January 2020

Fake news in the time of coronavirus

Digital space a new battleground in war against Wuhan virus
The SARS crisis 17 years ago did not have to deal with a multitude of online platforms to channel rumours and fake news
By David Boey, Published The Straits Times, 30 Jan 2020

Concerned that friends in a WhatsApp chat group who live in the eastern parts of Singapore might be worried by online chatter telling people to avoid Eastpoint Mall because of the Wuhan virus, my friend advised us to ignore such rumours. With good intentions, he then forwarded the rumour to show us what we should ignore, thus inadvertently spreading the falsehood even more.

When Singapore confronted the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis in 2003, it did not have to deal with the likes of Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and the vast digital universe of blogs, online influencers and citizen journalists.

Now, besides the battle to contain the spread of the 2019-nCoV, Singapore also has to contend with a different sort of fight, with falsehoods going viral in the digital arena.

POFMA, or the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, has already been triggered at least twice to correct fake news just one week after Singapore confirmed its first case of the new virus.

There is no guarantee that POFMA won't be needed again to deal with more health scares.


Singapore's digital battle space has at least two characteristics that make the fight much harder.

First, the city-state has one of the world's highest mobile phone penetration rates with over nine million mobile phones for a 5.3 million population (including children and babies). Many Singaporeans use two mobile phones. Many start their day by reaching for their phones even before they touch their toothbrush. Information travels fast in Singapore, and the velocity at which information is disseminated means crisis communicators have to be at the top of their game.

Second, the propensity of some segments of society to believe what they come across online can lead to rash and disproportionate reactions. This unquestioning tendency is reflected in statistics released from time to time by the Singapore Police Force on the tens of millions of dollars lost each year to online scams. The victims are of all ages and educational profiles, highlighting the vulnerability of our mobile-phone-savvy, highly connected society to the so-called Drums (distortions, rumours, untruths, misinformation and smears) - a term mentioned by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen at a Total Defence Symposium in 2013.

Mind you, not all Drums arise from sinister intent. During a crisis that involves a matter of life and death, people are even more inclined to err on the side of caution in order to protect themselves and their loved ones. This "kiasi" (literally fear of death) mindset leaves them even more open to all sorts of online rumours. It is, therefore, imperative that fake news is nipped in the bud quickly.


Case in point: the rumour that ran rampant on Tuesday that the Woodlands MRT station had to be shut down because of the virus. Readers sent a flood of inquiries to The Straits Times to ask if it was true. Calm was eventually restored when the report went out that it was not. But what was concerning was that in the absence of any update from transport operator SMRT, fake news grew legs unnecessarily and rapidly. The rumours died when debunked by the Ministry of Communications and Information.

While centralised dissemination of information during a nationwide crisis is important, bureaucratic processes can sometimes be counter-productive.

Service updates related to public transport, for instance, should be issued swiftly and decisively. The public has already been conditioned to receive updates on matters such as train disruptions and service delays. Was Woodlands MRT station open or closed? A swift tweet or Facebook update in response to that simple question would have gone a long way to replace fears and uncertainties with the facts.

In the absence of that, people not in the vicinity of the train station might have been left wondering about the lack of updates while being bombarded by shared messages about a shutdown.

Commuters who were at the station might have mistakenly thought that the "disinfection" work had been completed and the station reopened. Minus the simple assurance that Woodlands MRT station was operating normally, anxieties and conspiracy theories thrive.


Competing narratives will take root if one does not own the narrative. In a pandemic, the last thing you want is mass hysteria to break out due to an information lag.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted a Facebook update on Tuesday on Singapore's efforts to counter the Wuhan virus, ending with a plea not to spread fake news: "Please do not listen to or spread rumours and untrue reports - alas, there is a lot of that circulating around, on WhatsApp and social media. Sharing news responsibly is an important way we can protect ourselves."

The authorities who managed the SARS crisis never had to deal with the intensity of online voices that we experience today. Even then, rumours circulated about vinegar as a SARS virus killer. Now, peddlers of alternative remedies or theories about how the disease might spread are spoilt for choice with the array of digital platforms and channels at their disposal.

While we may chuckle at some of the home brew concoctions, never underestimate how pseudoscience can be framed in convincing language. The anti-vaccine movement grew in the face of a mountain of clinical evidence. Diseases once nearly eradicated have made a comeback as some parents refuse to vaccinate their children. If the novel coronavirus spreads locally, it would not be surprising if dodgy cures and medical advice start proliferating online.

The uproar in multiracial Malaysia over the perceived mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak also points to another danger - the fuelling of racial and xenophobic sentiments online as part of a blame game.

In situations of high anxiety, how information is disseminated is of critical importance. One maintains credibility by being transparent, especially for straightforward queries. Speed and clarity matter, too. Given the uncertainties and reports of attempted cover-ups of the scale of the problem in Wuhan, this can be challenging when updating Singaporeans on the latest situation. Trust in the information given out is hugely important.


The same goes for setting up a variety of channels to reach out to as many people as possible. Information available is of little use if not easily or readily accessible, especially in the face of "noise" from attention-grabbing fake news.

During the SARS epidemic, the all-out effort to cascade information saw television celebrities offer health advice in dialects such as Hainanese and Teochew. We also had a SARS hotline that people could call for advice or assurance.

Currently, the Ministry of Communications and Information's WhatApp information service is an excellent platform, and the bandwidth must keep a step ahead of its growing subscriber base to stay relevant. An online repository that addresses frequently asked questions about the novel coronavirus might prove useful, along with self-help videos or podcasts on topics as basic as how to put on a surgical mask to more complicated matters like what it means to be served a home quarantine order.

And while the spotlight is on the novel coronavirus, we must remember, too, that other infectious diseases such as dengue and Zika have not entirely gone away. The coronavirus strategic communications plan would do well if it could sketch out the complex, multi-threat environment so that no one falls into complacency.

Singapore's health authorities have done much to combat dengue and Zika. Highlighting these efforts as part of the broader anti-pandemic narrative would go a long way to reassure the public that Singapore has its eyes on multiple threats, and an action plan for protecting the public.

The addition of digital defence as the sixth pillar of Total Defence last February was timely and relevant. It prompts citizens to think about the online space even as we enlist civil, economic, military, psychological and social elements to deal with the wide spectrum of military and non-military threats. It hardens Singaporeans to the possibility that hostile elements might weaponise fear and hatred online to destabilise the country.

The digital battle space is a critical arena where crisis communications professionals have to fight hard to win hearts and minds during the ongoing novel coronavirus episode. It could prove to be a months-long fight with ups and downs along the way. It is vital that government communicators earn and retain the public's trust. It is vital too that every Singaporean plays his part - even by simply being more conscious that whatever is going viral online about the virus is not necessarily true.

David Boey, a former defence correspondent at The Straits Times, is a member of the Ministry of Defence's Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence. He was part of the team that covered SARS for this paper in 2003 and blogs on defence at

How fear distorts our thinking about the coronavirus
The solution isn't to try to think more carefully. It's to trust the experts.
By David DeSteno, Published The Straits Times, 13 Feb 2020

When it comes to making decisions that involve risks, we humans can be irrational in quite systematic ways - a fact that psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman famously demonstrated with the help of a hypothetical situation, eerily apropos of today's coronavirus epidemic, that has come to be known as the Asian disease problem.

Professors Tversky and Kahneman asked people to imagine that the United States was preparing for an outbreak of an unusual Asian disease that was expected to kill 600 citizens. To combat the disease, people could choose between two options: a treatment that would ensure 200 people would be saved or one that had a 33 per cent chance of saving all 600 but a 67 per cent chance of saving none. Here, a clear favourite emerged: Seventy-two per cent chose the former.

But when professors Tversky and Kahneman framed the question differently, such that the first option would ensure that only 400 people would die and the second option offered a 33 per cent chance that nobody would perish and a 67 per cent chance that all 600 would die, people's preferences reversed. Seventy-eight per cent now favoured the second option.

This is irrational because the two questions don't differ mathematically.

In both cases, choosing the first option means accepting the certainty that 200 people live, and choosing the second means embracing a one-third chance that all could be saved with an accompanying two-thirds chance that all will die.

Yet in our minds, professors Tversky and Kahneman explained, losses loom larger than gains, and so when the options are framed in terms of deaths rather than cures, we'll accept more risks to try to avoid deaths.

Our decision-making is bad enough when the disease is hypothetical. But when the disease is real - when we see actual death rates climbing daily, as we do with the coronavirus - another factor besides our sensitivity to losses comes into play: fear.

The brain states we call emotions exist for one reason: to help us decide what to do next. They reflect our mind's predictions for what's likely to happen in the world and therefore serve as an efficient way to prepare us for it. But when the emotions we feel aren't correctly calibrated for the threat or when we're making judgments in domains where we have little knowledge or relevant information, our feelings become more likely to lead us astray.

Let me give you an example.

In several experiments, my colleagues and I led people to feel sad or angry by having them read a magazine article that described either the impact of a natural disaster on a small town or the details of vehement anti-American protests abroad.

Next, we asked them to estimate the frequencies of events that, if they occurred, would typically make people feel sad (for example, the number of people who will have to euthanise a beloved pet this year) or angry (for example, the number of people who will be intentionally sold a "lemon" by a dishonest car dealer this year) - estimates for which people wouldn't already hold a knowledgeable answer.

Time and again, we found that when the emotion people felt matched the emotional overtones of a future event, their predictions for that event's frequency increased.

For instance, people who felt angry expected many more people to get swindled by a car dealer than did those who felt sad, even though the anger they felt had nothing to do with cars. Likewise, those who felt sad expected more people to have to euthanise their pets.

Fear works in a similar way.

Using a nationally representative sample in the months following Sept 11, 2001, decision scientist Jennifer Lerner showed that feeling fear led people to believe that certain anxiety-provoking possibilities (for example, a terrorist strike) were more likely to occur.

Such findings show that our emotions can bias our decisions in ways that don't accurately reflect the dangers around us.

As of Monday, only 12 people in the United States have been confirmed to have the coronavirus, and all have had or are undergoing medical monitoring.

Yet fear of contracting the virus is rampant. Throughout the US, there's been a rush on face masks (most of which won't help against the virus), a hesitance to go into crowded places and even a growing suspicion that any Asian might be a host for the virus.

Don't get me wrong: Certain quarantine or monitoring policies can make great sense when the threat is real and the policies are based on accurate data.

But the facts on the ground, as opposed to the fear in the air, don't warrant such actions. For most of us, the seasonal flu, which has killed as many as 25,000 people in the United States in just a few months, presents a much greater threat than does the coronavirus.

You might think that the best way to solve the problem is to get people to be more deliberative - to have them think more carefully about the issues involved.

Unfortunately, when it comes to this type of emotion-induced bias, that strategy can make matters worse.

When people spend more time considering an issue but don't have the relevant facts at hand to make an informed decision, there are more opportunities for their feelings to fill in the blanks.

To demonstrate this, my colleagues and I conducted another series of experiments, in which we presented sad, angry or emotionally neutral people with a government proposal to raise taxes. In one version of the proposal, we said the increased revenue would be used to reduce "depressing" problems (such as poor conditions in nursing homes).

In the other, we focused on "angering" problems (such as increasing crime because of a shortage of police officers).

As we expected, when the emotions people felt matched the emotion of the rationales for the tax increase, their attitudes towards the proposal became more positive. But the more effort they put into considering the proposal didn't turn out to reduce this bias; it made it stronger.

There's a simple explanation for this. The more time people spent thinking about the arguments for the tax increase - rationales that matched their feelings in emotional overtone - the more opportunity their emotions had to inflate the perceived pervasiveness of those problems.

The mix of miscalibrated emotion and limited knowledge, the exact situation in which many people now find themselves with respect to the coronavirus, can set in motion a worsening spiral of irrational behaviour.

As news about the virus' toll in China stokes our fears, it makes us not only more worried than we need be about contracting it, but also more susceptible to embracing fake claims and potentially problematic, hostile or fearful attitudes towards those around us - claims and attitudes that in turn reinforce our fear and amp up the cycle.

So how to fix the problem?

Again, the solution isn't to try to think more carefully about the situation. Most people don't possess the medical knowledge to know how and when to best address viral epidemics, and as a result, their emotions hold undue sway.

Rather, the solution is to trust data-informed expertise. But in today's world, I worry a firm trust in expertise is lacking, making us too much the victim of fear.


David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and a visiting fellow at Harvard's Centre for Public Leadership, is the author of Emotional Success: The Power Of Gratitude, Compassion, And Pride.

China and fake news in the time of coronavirus
By Yuan Yang, Published The Straits Times, 14 Feb 2020

China's coronavirus has also sparked an epidemic of online panic. When the severe acute respiratory syndrome or Sars hit in 2003, 6 per cent of China's population were online; now almost 60 per cent are. The average user of WeChat, the country's dominant social media platform, spends 90 minutes a day on the app. As a result, while more than 40,000 patients in China are fighting the virus, the entire country is facing an onslaught of online media - much of it disinformation.

There are important upsides to the proliferation of social media in China. It enables citizen reporting of a kind rarely seen in the country - such as video blogs from Wuhan, the city at the heart of the epidemic. Such independent reporting is essential in China's tightly state-controlled media environment.

At the same time, however, the flow of information is bigger than ever. Receiving information straight to your phone, in real time, can make you feel like the virus is closing in on you - even if it's not.

Being surrounded by panic-inducing headlines, whether true or false, has its own impact on health. A recent study in the Lancet about the impact of the Hong Kong protests on mental health found that spending more than two hours a day following such events on social media was associated with an increased likelihood of post-traumatic stress and depression, although the direction of causality is unclear.

Amid the deluge of coronavirus news, some find it hard to distinguish between real and fake. Last week, my grandpa texted me on WeChat: "Viruses are scared of acid. Twice a day... dab a cotton bud with strong vinegar and stick it inside your nose. It will help greatly with the current virus outbreak."

I didn't reach for the cotton buds. Friends told me that they had received similar messages from relatives, asking them to dab sesame oil in their nostrils or avoid wearing wool. They often came via that most tricky of social arenas: the family group chat.

Many messages, like my grandpa's, were copy-and-paste rumours that looked at first glance like genuine texts. Many begin with conversational openings: "A friend who works in a hospital told me..." Others include a cry of urgency: "I just got this message!" Or: "Important news."

Such messages remind me of those that circulated ahead of last December's British election, after the Yorkshire Evening Post reported the story of a sick child forced to sleep on the floor of a hospital because of a lack of beds. Once the story broke, social media posts trying to discredit it proliferated, often opening with: "A friend who is a nurse told me..."

In response, Mr James Mitchinson, editor of the Post, asked one critic: "Why do you trust (this social media account's) claim over the newspaper you've taken for years in good faith?"

In China, though, people are increasingly unsure whether they can take the state-censored media in good faith. There has been widespread anger at the government over its hushing up of virus cases in the early stages of the outbreak, and over the police punishment of the young whistle-blower doctor who had warned of a new strain of coronavirus, and who, tragically, died from it last week.

The first step in dispelling misinformation is establishing an alternative source of credibility. Conversations within families could be one potent method for this. In reality, most of my friends here have decided the best way to deal with it is to let it be: "It's harmless," said one friend, who referred to the Chinese tendency to give health advice as an expression of care.

Others who seek to confront their relatives have been exasperated by the fact that they might trust a blog more than their granddaughter. "Grandparents buy into the Confucian idea that you shouldn't correct your elders," another said.

There's also the question of where to start when unpicking a lie. While health rumours can often be corrected, pernicious conspiracy theories are another matter. One friend sent me a message from her grandma claiming the American Freemasons had created the coronavirus to kill off Chinese people. "I know my grandma sends these messages because she cares about me," my friend said.

As current events in China unfold, all of us will need to show patience - and care - in fighting back against falsehoods.


Yuan Yang is the Financial Times' China tech correspondent.

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