Hong Kong (AFP) – False warnings about a man shot at a coronavirus checkpoint, old footage of a supermarket rush reported about panic buying, and a 2015 video of a police raid on a brothel that was circulated with a misleading allegation .
A flood of online misinformation and jokes during the coronavirus crisis is fueling fear and confusion across Asia, where blocking rules in some countries can result in prison and heavy fines.
AFP has produced more than 150 lock misinformation reports across the region since February, when governments outside of China began introducing restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The hoaxes are created by a multitude of people with different motives – from those who want to discredit governments and deepen religious divisions to jokes – and then become widespread as a fact.
In April, a joke was posted on Facebook in the Philippines after the ban, suggesting that a motorcyclist was shot for ignoring a virus checkpoint.
In fact, the footage viewed in several posts tens of thousands of times was a police training exercise.
Some users were outraged and questioned the allegedly lethal use of force by the police, which has long been charged with human rights violations and led by President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs.
Others believed, however, that the man was “stubborn” and was rightly punished for persistently ignoring the checkpoint.
Other misinformation spread in the Philippines was doctoral degrees on blocking extensions and incorrect contributions on anti-government protesters who violated assembly bans.
In other Asian countries, a Facebook post in Thailand included a video that allegedly shows panicked shoppers looking for goods after a strict ban in Malaysia.
Thai Facebook users who watched the video a hundred thousand times shared it with comments expressing concern that there would be similar scenes in Thailand.
The clip actually showed buyers in Brazil on Black Friday, an annual sales day in November 2019.
“(Misinformation) has created a lot of insecurity and fear in people,” said Yvonne Chua, professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines.
– face masks, panic buying –
According to Axel Bruns, a media professor at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, online chaos has a greater impact when governments have communicated poorly.
“It seems to me that the more effective government communications have been about locks, but really about all aspects of their coronavirus response, the less it has taken root for misinformation and disinformation,” said Bruns.
In Thailand, where movement restrictions were imposed in March, fears of misleading news spread that people who did not wear face masks in public were fined 200 baht (USD 6).
The misinformation spread quickly on Facebook, Twitter and the messaging app Line, and the Thai police were forced to refute the allegation at a press conference.
However, less than a month later, some provinces introduced much tougher fines for those who didn’t wear face masks, further adding to the confusion.
– Ax Attack Hoax –
In Pakistan, where restrictions on corona viruses were recently relaxed, a prank video indicated buyers were trying to flee a store after the police found out they had ignored the ban.
But this video was actually from a police raid on a brothel in 2015.
Many Pakistani users indicated that the clip was old, but not before it was viewed ten thousand times on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WhatsApp.
There was also a lot of misinformation in neighboring India after a nationwide ban was imposed in March.
The most important misleading contributions included political cuts, rumors of extreme blocking measures, and misinformation intended to fuel religious tensions.
A graphic video of an ax attack has been viewed ten thousand times in fake posts on Facebook and Twitter. It is said to have shown Islamist extremists who killed a Hindu man during the ban.
In reality, the video showed an attack in Pakistan.
While some social media users identified the clip as being from abroad, others appeared to be misled, suggesting that India needed “army rule”.
Bruns said the flood of misinformation is due in part to governments’ inability to adequately reassure their citizens.
“The spread of misinformation is increasing at such times because people are desperate to find answers to their questions about what happens, why, and what they can do to protect themselves,” said Bruns.
“And if they don’t find enough satisfactory answers from official sources, they’ll start looking elsewhere.”