False information goes viral as Malaysia tackles coronavirus outbreak

KUALA LUMPUR – Special military helicopters will spray pesticide from the sky all over the country tonight, so please stay indoors. This is just one of the hundreds of fake messages that have made the rounds of mobile phones across Malaysia in recent weeks as the country imposes a partial shutdown to curb the of the coronavirus.

The virus has claimed 50 lives and marked Malaysia as the worst-infected country in South-east Asia with 3,116 confirmed cases so far.

But the of misinformation has done its fair share of damage too – sparking panic buying at supermarkets, promoting false cures and scamming millions of ringgit off buyers desperate to get their hands on surgical masks.

“The biggest challenge for us has been to stop people from spreading fake news,” said Mr Zulkarnain Mohd Yasin, chief compliance officer at the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

The agency runs the government fact-checking website, sebenarnya.my, which has put up over 200 articles debunking myths and alerting the public to scams relating to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“Recycled items that has been debunked continue to circulate. We ask broadcasters and ministries to put up daily the list of debunks but it all comes back to the attitude people have,” Mr Zulkarnain told The Straits Times.

Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said his ministry has recorded over 40 cases of hoaxes related to Covid-19, with an average of three to five “weird news” items popping up daily that require investigation. These include wild claims that hospitals are shut or that people are being randomly arrested.

The minister said a total of 11 individuals have been investigated for misinformation relating to the virus outbreak, of which six have been charged.

Mr Zulkarnain said the agency’s main concern is taking down online scams, which for example, promise to help submit claims under the government’s economic stimulus package.

Malaysia’s civil servants and medical experts have not been spared, with fake information being falsely attributed to them on social media.

One such victim was Datuk Christopher Lee, a former health ministry official specialising in infectious diseases. A WhatsApp message claiming to be from him warned people against touching letters, in case they contracted Covid-19 from the envelope.

“I can’t understand why folks would want to inaccurate or blatantly false information… This is irresponsible and even mischievous,” said Dr Lee.

Meanwhile, the most common virus miracle cures circulating online include gargling salt water, drinking boiled ginger and eating garlic. These have been debunked by experts.

Yet even trusted sources in Malaysia can prove to be questionable.

Last month newly appointed Health Minister Adham Baba was widely panned at home and abroad when he claimed during a television that people should drink warm water as this will flush the virus down the throat so it can be killed by stomach acid.

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