Fighting the virus of fake news in the time of coronavirusSocial media users should exercise prudence and control their urge to share information on various platforms, experts say.
On Saturday, an audio clip suddenly went viral. In the widely shared clip, a person is heard saying six people tested positive for Covid-19 at a private hospital in Kathmandu. At a time when the general public is concerned about the possible spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, the audio clip could have easily prompted panic.
The person in the audio clip was giving reference to Norvic Hospital in Thapathali, which within hours put up a public notice, clarifying that the audio was fake. Issuing a statement, Norvic Hospital also called for action against those who spread the fake information.
Police took cognizance of the incident and said they were launching an investigation.
Later on Saturday afternoon, police arrested 20-year-old Bibek Thapa Magar of Ramechhap, who currently lives in Sipadole, Bhaktapur.
Magar had initially shared the “news” on Facebook on Friday evening, but by Saturday morning the accompanying audio clip had been circulated widely through various social media platforms and instant messaging apps like WhatsApp and Viber.
“We arrested the youth at around 3pm,” an inspector at the Central Cyber Bureau of Nepal Police told the Post on the condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak with the media.
During interrogation, Magar confirmed his involvement in circulating the audio clip from his Facebook page.
“Investigation is underway,” said the inspector.
Over the past few weeks amid the Covid-19 outbreak, fake news and information have flooded social media platforms across the globe.
While Covid-19 has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, the proliferation of fake news about the disease has been branded “infodemic”, given the threat it could pose to communities.
Officials and experts say people today live in the digital age and just as Covid-19 is spreading fast, fake news is spreading equally fast on social media.
What is more concerning is, according to them, spread of fake information oftentimes may lead to erosion of trust in the government, which creates an even more dangerous situation.
According to Prabhakar Pokharel, a psychologist at Kist Medical College, fake news can be more dangerous than the virus, as it spreads very quickly.
Pokharel said there are different types of fake information currently circulating in society via different platforms.
“While some information is misleading with claims that the coronavirus will not affect Nepalis and others are spreading rumours about people testing positive,” Pokharel told the Post. “We need to steer clear of both types of false information.”
Experts globally have called on people to check a few points before deriving a conclusion from any information they receive on social media or instant messaging services.
They say people must look for “source” when they receive any piece of news or information.
“Social media users should not share news about the coronavirus without verifying the source,” said Advocate Baburam Aryal, who specialises in cyber law. “Social media users should only trust the information provided by medical experts, government and the World Health Organisation.”
According to experts, in the time of crisis, it becomes the social responsibility of individual members of the public also to extend support to the government.
Psychologists say social media users at times feel so compelled to share the information they receive, without checking the facts. This tendency, in general, makes some posts go viral.
Some experts even draw a parallel between the spread of fake news and the virus.
Just like the virus, a fake post starts from somewhere, and as it spreads, it becomes viral, often mutates, adding more misleading information and then crosses languages, making things much more complicated.
“The tendency also shows how social media users often consume information,” said Aryal. “Everyone must exercise prudence and think twice before sharing any piece of information they receive.”
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of March 28, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. As of Wednesday, Covid-19 had spread to 199 countries and infected more than 596,349 people with 27,343 deaths. In South Asia, Pakistan has reported the highest number of infections at 1,373, with 11 deaths. While India has reported 667 confirmed cases with 20 deaths. Nepal has so far reported four cases, in which one patient recovered.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.