Anarchy of Fake News in the Age of COVID-19

Dr. Nguyen Thi Truong Giang
July 26th, 2020


Image Courtesy: Getty Images

In February 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that along with the pandemic causing acute respiratory infections by a new strain of coronavirus, there has been an information pandemic – “infodemic”, which has widely spread on social networks and media. In this regard, WHO Director-General  Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in February: Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.

Since the first COVID-19 case was recorded in China in late 2019, false information has appeared increasingly on social networking sites, therefore, it obstructed the governments and health organizations from efforts of prevention and fight against the pandemic.

According to a study of Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (2020), based on 225 pieces of misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic, up to 88% of the sample appeared on social networking platforms, while this figure is only 9% for television and 8% for news outlets.

In facing the complicated situation of misinformation about COVID-19 on social networks, in early February 2020, WHO held a meeting with representatives of several large technology corporations to detect solutions to control the spread of fake news, as well as to discuss how to spread accurate information to social media users.

On March 11, 2020, the US Government also suggested that Silicon Valley technology corporations took part in the anti-COVID-19 campaign by coordinating in the prevention of false information spreading on social networking sites, using artificial intelligence (AI) to detect and remove this information early before it is widely distributed. 

On March 17, 2020, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and Youtube – the major players in the social network management issued a joint notice to commit to fighting against misinformation shared on its foundation, working closely with WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in an effort to track down the source, verify and eliminate false information as soon as it is detected, and direct social media users to reliable sources of information.

Two major Chinese social networks, Weibo and WeChat, are also actively working with the WHO and the Chinese government to combat fake news. Since January 2020, the Weibo social network has sent daily notifications to users about false information related to COVID-19 that has been rejected by state-owned media. Tencent, a WeChat management company, works with doctors, health professionals and media agencies to censor and correct misinformation on an integrated platform called Jiaozhen.

In Vietnam, the content of fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic is diverse. They appeared as articles or news outlets live streaming on personal accounts, or pieces of misinformation on forums, pages, groups on how to cure and treat COVID-19 disease such as: “COVID-19 is distributed via 5G network”, “Using alcoholic beverages to help prevent COVID-19 infection “, “Eat garlic to avoid being infected with COVID-19”. Those pieces of misinformation then called for boycotting or not following the Ministry of Health’s guidance on disease prevention, which threatened the user’s life by following these false instructions. These fake news also appeared as false rumours about the number of patients infected by or dying from, COVID-19, especially when Hanoi discovered the 17th case of COVID-19 in the night of March 6, 2020. According to the Department of Cyber ​​Security and High-tech Crime Prevention, Ministry of Public Security, during weekends, after announcing the case number 17 (March 6, 2020), over 80,000 pieces of information relating to COVID-19 and this patient appeared on online platforms.

Taking advantage of the information gap when the mainstream media have not yet updated news, some individuals released misinformation about the infected people in the form of “internal sources”, “confidential information not disclosed”,… to attract the reactions and shares from the online community, then to widely spread the fake news which caused confusion, doubts to the people and tricked people for the purpose of sabotage. Terribly, in the matrix of misleading information related to the pandemic, there have been much-fabricated information to smear and discredit the Party and the State of Vietnam in the prevention of pandemic.

Vietnam has been regarded as a successful model for controlling COVID-19 disease and false information related to it. The cooperation of the political system and the authorities including both fields of health and communication has been a prominent feature of Vietnam, which is highly appreciated by the world.

Facing the increasing rampant and losing control of fake news in general and fake news related to COVID-19 epidemic in particular, on March 3, 2020, the Prime Minister issued Decree 15/2020/ND-CP which took effect from April 15 with more detailed regulations related to the handling of administrative violations in the post and telecommunications environment. Specifically, Article 101 of this Decree stipulates the fine for acts of spreading fake news and false information on social networks more clearly than before: A fine of from 10 to 20 million Dong for acts of abusing social networks to commit one of the following acts: Providing and sharing fake news, false information, misrepresenting, slandering, insulting the reputation of agencies, organizations, honour and dignity of individuals; Providing and sharing fabricated information, causing confusion among people. In addition to fines, violators are forced to remove false, misleading, or illegal information.

Since the occurrence of COVID-19 pandemic, Department A05 (Ministry of Public Security) has coordinated with police units and localities to verify and work with 800 cases of false and misleading reporting about the pandemic, of which nearly 200 cases has been administratively sanctioned and requested to remove false information. Hundreds of subjects have been handled by the authorities, but the internet environment is still full of fake news related to the disease each day.

Until March 23, nearly 300,000 news, posts on websites, blogs, forums and nearly 600,000 news, articles and clips related to the COVID-19 pandemic were posted on social networks. In particular, the authorities have timely verified, worked with 654 cases of reporting false information; and implemented administrative sanctions of 146 people.

In order to slow down the development of fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic, every person using the network should become a wise person in receiving information, and not accidentally become a source of spreading fake news. A recommendation for individuals is not to like, share, comment on the information that has not been verified, or have not been proved to be accurate, and take action to fight against and notify the community and authorities when detecting fake news.

**The author is the Deputy Director of Academy of Journalism and Communication, Hanoi, Vietnam**