While the coronavirus outbreak has led to the highly contagious COVID-19 virus spreading across 97 countries, it has also caused another kind of problem: misinformation. The issue is so serious that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has called it a "massive infodemic." Consequently, some countries are now cracking down to contain both the coronavirus and the misinformation it breeds.
From Hong Kong to Malaysia to Vietnam, six countries across Asia are reportedly cracking down heavily on people and imposing jail time on the defaulters to prevent them from spreading rumours. Whether people are lying about the cause of coronavirus, or pretending to be infected by it as an excuse to get out of work, misinformation is also causing the governments to surveil social media accounts. While it’s unsettling to know that government officials are combing through our Facebook and Instagram, Indian officials claim this is just to keep panic levels in check. In Maharashtra, which has no confirmed cases yet, a cyber cell has been appointed to curb fake news.
On February 2, the police arrested three people from Kerala—the first Indian state to have cases of coronavirus—for sharing misleading information in the form of text forwards. Most recently, on March 8, a man from Arunachal Pradesh (which has no cases of coronavirus yet) posted a false claim that coronavirus has spread in the Northeast, on a Facebook group. Upon realising the damaging impact of the post and the panic it triggered, the district medical officer from the Kaling Daiat Pasighat police station filed a First Information Report (FIR) on March 6.
We’ve had the problem of fake news in the country for a while now, and if it goes unchecked and unverified, it can create a scary situation. The bottom line is, whether the government is on the lookout for fake news spreaders or not, we should all do our bit to educate ourselves on COVID-19 as much as possible before jumping to conclusions.
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