SINGAPORE: Global efforts to tackle the COVID-19 “infodemic” – a term coined by the World Health Organization (WHO) to describe the spread of coronavirus-related misinformation online – are speeding up in response to the sheer scale of fake news on social media and online messaging platforms.
The spread of misinformation about COVID-19 has led to confusion, fear and even violence.
As governments increasingly turn to a variety of social media platforms to communicate official information to the public, the popular application Telegram has become an important messaging tool for governments.
READ: Commentary: Forwarding a WhatsApp message on COVID-19 news? How to make sure you don’t spread misinformation
BEHIND TELEGRAM’S POPULARITY
Originally built by founders Pavel and Nikolai Durov as a means to restrict Russian security agency access to their private communication, Telegram now has around 200 million users worldwide.
Three main features drive Telegram’s popularity – secret chats, groups and channels. Secret chats are popular for their end-to-end encryption and self-destructing messages, while groups and channels offer avenues for mass communication to large audiences.
Public groups can accommodate up to hundreds of thousands of members, allowing for two-way communication and collaboration. Group administrators can control access and privileges to new and existing members, moderate messages for prohibited content and enforce group etiquette.
Telegram channels are a powerful tool for broadcasting messages to unlimited audiences. They are advantageous for massive one-way broadcasts, similar to RSS feeds, and are commonly used by media organisations and businesses worldwide.
The urgency with which information related to COVID-19 is consumed demonstrates the need for accurate and timely news. In China, individuals use Telegram to access information pertaining to COVID-19, overcoming government firewalls with virtual private networks.
But technology platforms also enable the dissemination and amplification of misinformation. Anonymous groups and channels on Telegram are sharing unverified information linked to COVID-19, often containing hoaxes of cures for the virus.
Milo Yiannopoulos, the alt-right internet celebrity and influencer, is just one of the many personalities who have taken to Telegram to promote COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
An audio clip falsely attributed to Iranian Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi and widely shared on Telegram claimed there were more than 10,000 deaths in the country on Feb 27.
READ: Commentary: What to do with all these health rumours and forwarded messages in the time of COVID-19?
AUTHORITIES ON TELEGRAM
To reduce the impact of misinformation, governments have turned to Telegram to nudge citizens towards more factual information. Telegram channels created by governments and health authorities have gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
India and Malaysia utilise verified Telegram channels to broadcast news updates, advice and issue warnings about compliance with lockdown and social distancing measures.
The Singapore Government also launched its official COVID-19 channel earlier this year, disseminating the same COVID-19 messages it carries on the Gov.sg WhatsApp channel.
The Gov.sg Telegram channel has over 270,000 subscribers. The channel provides the public with reliable, clear and timely information regarding COVID-19.
Global health organisations have also hopped on the bandwagon. The WHO has over 15,000 subscribers to its channel.
A USEFUL TOOL
Aware of the propensity for misinformation to proliferate on messaging applications, Telegram recently streamlined its verification processes for official channels created by health authorities.
This enables Telegram users to better distinguish between trustworthy sources of information and groups or channels disseminating misinformation. Telegram also sends notifications to users so they can join verified channels available in their countries.
Official Telegram groups facilitate greater engagement with citizens. “COVID19 Karnataka SAHAYA” – a public group run by Karnataka state’s Department of Information and Public Relations in India – enables people to obtain updated information about COVID-19.
COVID-19 related questions can be sent by the public and are answered by a dedicated team of state administrators, public health officials and medical professionals who then direct subscribers to verified sources of public health information.
COVID-19 updates are also sent to users via a bot embedded in the group.
Transparent and accurate public health information, disseminated in a timely manner, is a powerful way to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Helping users access information from verified channels makes this a step easier, while also reducing the confusion and anxiety about unverified sources of information.
Telegram is a useful tool that allows governments and health authorities to cut through the noise of unverified opinions and misinformation, and in doing so, provide updated public health and safety messages to the public.
Dymples Leong is a Senior Analyst with Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. This commentary first appeared on East Asia Forum.