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'Steady wave' of fake news on coronavirus in the region: Facebook fact-checker

'Steady wave' of fake news on coronavirus in the region: Facebook fact-checker

People seen wearing masks at Bugis Street, Singapore on Feb 3. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: No, you cannot steam your face masks in order to reuse them in the battle against the novel coronavirus.

But this is exactly what a purported doctor advised in a video that has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times in multiple Chinese-language posts on Facebook, Weibo and Youku in January.

While Facebook's third-party fact-checker has since debunked it as false, this could just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fake news on the coronavirus.

There has been a "steady wave" of misinformation on the virus in the region, fact-checker Agence France-Presse (AFP) revealed, although it told CNA the situation in Singapore is less severe.

What's happening in Singapore is "certainly nothing compared to what we've seen" in some countries in the region, Hong Kong-based AFP fact-check editor Rachel Blundy said.

The fact-checker covers 10 countries and territories in Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand.

READ: As coronavirus misinformation spreads on social media, Facebook removes posts

"Generally there has been a steady wave of misinformation about the coronavirus coming from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Australia, Pakistan, Malaysia and more recently India and Thailand," Ms Blundy said.

"We've generally seen a lot less misinformation in Singapore, but this is consistent with normal misinformation trends."

FILE PHOTO: Attendees walk past a Facebook logo during Facebook Inc's F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

This is not to say Singapore has been free from the scourge of coronavirus fake news.

In January, authorities invoked the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to issue correction directions to several parties including Facebook regarding false claims related to the coronavirus.

These include allegations that Woodlands MRT station was closed due to the virus and that Singapore had run out of face masks.

READ: 'Swift action’ needed against falsehoods, says Iswaran citing case of Hardwarezone Forum post on Wuhan virus

Several ministers have stressed the importance of using POFMA to deal swiftly with falsehoods as Singapore tries to contain the virus, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledging that he was "glad" to have the legislation.

On Jan 31, Mr Lee said the Government is aware that some individuals are deliberately coming up with fake news to foment fear, uncertainty and doubt on social media.


Facebook says it has been working on tackling the issue.

“Several of our third-party fact-checking partners around the world have rated content false so we are dramatically reducing its distribution and people who see this content or try to share it," a Facebook spokesperson told CNA.

"This situation is fast-evolving and we will continue our outreach to global and regional health organisations to provide support and assistance.”

READ: Facebook expands fact-checking initiative to Singapore amid challenges in other markets

Last May, the tech giant announced it was partnering AFP to combat fake news in Singapore and other countries on its platform, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify potentially false posts.

The AI uses signals like user feedback and comments to determine posts that should be reviewed by the third-party fact-checker. Facebook has also allowed fact-checkers to proactively review posts.

READ: Avoid speculating, spreading 'unfounded rumours' on Wuhan coronavirus: NEA

Ms Blundy said fact-checkers tend to make a judgement within an hour of seeing a post on whether it should be fact-checked, adding that AFP has one fact-check reporter working on Singapore content remotely from Kuala Lumpur.

"Reporters pitch ideas for fact-checks to editors, who approve," she said, clarifying that these fact-checkers don't have to undergo special training before covering the coronavirus outbreak. "We use digital verification tools and normal journalistic methods to debunk posts."

READ: Thailand arrests two for 'fake news' posts on coronavirus

If the fact-checker rates the content as false, Facebook will push it lower down the news feed, meaning users are 80 per cent less likely to see it. The platform will also attach a warning label to false content, and send a notification to those who try to share it.


Facebook's popular messaging app WhatsApp has not been spared from fake news either.

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Whatsapp logo in this picture illustration taken Mar 28, 2018. (REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration)

A group of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) undergraduates trying to fight fake news on Singaporeans' most-used messaging app said misinformation on the virus has been circulating "widely" on the platform.

"Since WhatsApp is a closed platform – messages being exchanged can only be seen by those involved in the exchange – it is harder for researchers and policy people to track what fake news are being spread around in these exchanges," NTU Associate Professor Edson Tandoc said.

READ: Fitness First Singapore debunks notice claiming its clubs are closed due to Wuhan virus outbreak

The NTU group, Sure Anot, has launched a campaign encouraging older adults aged 50 to 64 not to forward news messages they get on the virus until they have verified the authenticity with the sender and family members.

"We realised that older adults may feel overwhelmed when asked to perform technologically-advanced fact-checking steps, such as reverse image search,” the group's leader Lee Yun Ting said.

READ: Malaysia arrests 4 more people for spreading false information about Wuhan virus

On the back end, WhatsApp has moved to limit forwarding messages to five chats at once, reducing the amount of forwarded messages by a quarter.

WhatsApp can also automatically detect accounts that engage in bulk or automated messaging, and has removed more than two million accounts a month for such behavior.

READ: Coronavirus won't turn you into a 'zombie', says Malaysia

In addition, the Singapore Government is using a WhatsApp business account to send health information to people who have opted to receive updates on the developing coronavirus situation. More than 300,000 people have signed up for the service.

Despite the measures, authorities are keen to crack down further on fake news.


On Jan 30, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) removed temporary provisions that exempted social media companies and search engines from being issued general correction directions under POFMA.

READ: POFMA temporary exemptions to be lifted, move 'critical' given evolving coronavirus situation: MCI

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google, when issued with such directions, are now required to disseminate a correction notice in Singapore using their service to all their end‑users or users specified by the direction.

MCI had called the move "critical" given the evolving coronavirus situation. Facebook, Twitter and Google have not responded to requests for comment on the move. It is not clear how they might broadcast such a platform-wide notice.


Nevertheless, Twitter has launched a dedicated search prompt to ensure that users who search for the coronavirus are given "credible and authoritative" information first, through partnerships with global health organisations and local authorities.

FILE PHOTO: The Twitter App loads on an iPhone in this illustration photograph taken in Los Angeles, California, U.S., July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

It has also collaborated with organisations to "amplify authoritative, official content across the globe".

"At present, we’re not seeing significant coordinated attempts to spread disinformation at scale about this issue," a spokesperson said. 

"However, we will remain vigilant and have invested significantly in our proactive abilities to ensure trends, search and other common areas of the service are protected from malicious behaviours."

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Google is seen at the high profile startups and high tech leaders gathering, Viva Tech,in Paris, France May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

Likewise, Google said its systems automatically place "even more importance" on authoritative content when users search particularly sensitive topics like health content.

"When we highlight information on medical topics, we show information that reflects broad scientific consensus," it said.

The company had recently introduced an alert providing users who search for the coronavirus direct access to news, safety tips and information from the World Health Organization. The alert will appear at the top of the results page.

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of Youtube logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

For news and information queries, Google's YouTube also said its systems "prominently surface" authoritative sources at the top of search results and in the "watch next" panels.

"We aim to surface videos from experts or media outlets, like public health institutions or news organisations, in search results," it added. "Millions of search queries are getting this treatment today, including coronavirus-related queries."


Regardless, authorities feel citizens also have a part to play in quashing fake news.

In a ministerial statement on the coronavirus outbreak, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong urged Singaporeans to turn to official or credible sources for accurate and up-to-date information on the virus.

READ: Lawrence Wong's ministerial statement on Singapore's response to novel coronavirus

"We ask Singaporeans to be discerning, and share only verified information," he told Parliament on Feb 3. "We also have a responsibility, in this time of heightened alert, not to spread unverified information or false news which can cause needless panic and fear."

Mr Wong said the Government has used POFMA to correct such falsehoods and clarify the facts quickly. "We will continue to do so to avoid unnecessary panic and anxiety," he added.

Source: CNA/hz


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