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Disinformation Can Be Fatal As Netizens Get Duped By COVID-19 Hoaxes, Fake Cures – UP Professor

Disinformation Can Be Fatal As Netizens Get Duped By COVID-19 Hoaxes, Fake Cures – UP Professor
Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay

While disinformation has been on the rise since the run-up to the 2016 elections, the spread of misleading or outright false social media posts may now lead to “fatal consequences” amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, a University of the Philippines journalism professor warned.

“We are seeing that information disorder or ‘infodemic’ has reached a level na magiging may fatal consequences siya (that it will have fatal consequences),” Ma. Diosa Labiste of the UP College of Mass Communication said during the launch of the #IWASFAKE Remote Learning campaign of the Out of the Box Media Literacy Initiative on Saturday, Oct. 24.

The “infodemic,” Labiste stressed, is “not like political disinformation” where personalities and groups hurl lies against each other amid the election cycles and political scandals. She highlighted the more serious dangers of fake cures and false stories about vaccines on people’s health.

She said the pandemic exposed that “we have reached a crisis of sorts” when it comes to disinformation. She noted that the disease has been a “petri dish” of misleading or downright false information, because of the anxiety and the difficulty of explaining how to deal with such a complex problem.

“People resort to all sorts of information to educate themselves. Actually, they’re doing themselves a disservice because most of these information are unverified, most of them are probably conjectures, hoaxes and false cures and remedies na (that) people would end up confused,” Labiste noted.

 Comparing the pandemic with the 2016 elections, Labiste explained: “There’s a particular ring to it when we say that in 2016, nag-explode ’yung disinformation (disinformation exploded)… because these are crisis situations.”

“And in crisis situations, people are grasping for information, and sometimes they don’t get the kind of information that they need,” she said.

#IWASFAKE Remote Learning shares different ways people can protect themselves and their communities from the “infodemic.” It offers four steps that can be applied when using the internet: pause and calm down, be skeptical, check the source and context of the information, and filter what to share and call out disinformation.

Teachers may use free remote learning resources – in English, Filipino and Bisaya – that can be included in existing curricula or taught as a complete course in both online and modular formats.

Out of the Box co-founder Marlon Nombrado likened disinformation to COVID-19: “Una, mahirap itong kalabanin. Pangalawa, tayo ay pinag-iingat upang hindi tayo mahawa dito (First, it’s hard to fight. Second, we are told to take care so we won’t get infected).”

But just like the contagious disease, it is also crucial to avoid fake news.

Labiste disclosed that she and fellow UP CMC professor Yvonne Chua were writing a journal article about the “infodemic.” They saw that the trend of disinformation had shifted toward “claims on interventions on the pandemic” – alleged cures and remedies, lies about vaccine development, and even fake endorsements by celebrities and influencers.

She pointed out that no specific cure has been invented and no vaccine has been approved for COVID-19, contrary to what has been spread over social media.

Labiste said there were more claims that were downright false and fake, than those that were just misleading or lacking in context.

Engaging those misled by fake news

According to Labiste, disinformation has “penetrated” daily personal lives.

“It circulates all over us, and ito ’yung mga persons na close to us, they are exposed to it, and tayo naman, we try to find ways to debunk it, and sometimes wala tayong energy and we can only do so much (It circulates all over us, and these are the persons close to us, they are exposed to it, and for our part, we try to find ways to debunk it, and sometimes we do not have the energy and we can only do so much),” she said.

GMA Network journalist and anchor Raffy Tima agreed with the observation that some people have been led astray by both positive and negative fake news, especially when they align their views and beliefs.

Ang mas tinitingnan kong problema ay isang society na misinformed na because of all this disinformation (What I see as a problem is a society that has become misinformed because of all this disinformation),” Tima said.

Kasi kung ang basis ng information mo at ang basis ng belief mo at ang basis ng decision mo ay nakabase sa mali, mali ang magiging decision mo at ang paniniwala mo (If the basis of your information and your beliefs and your decisions is incorrect information, your decisions and belief will be incorrect),” he added.

Making the problem worse would be the difficulty in reversing incorrect beliefs and decisions, Tima bewailed, “kahit na i-bombard natin sa traditional media, ito ang katotohanan (even if we bombard the truth in the traditional media)” because they would be rooted already on false information.

But he continues to exert effort to help fight disinformation. Tima stated that he no longer ignores people who may have been misled by disinformation. He said he tries to engage the social media users who send him private messages one by one, and “80 percent” of them would apologize after finally understanding the issue.

He urged people who have access to better sources of verifiable information to “push back” against disinformation by “calling out” those who spread it.

Sana ’yung ibang tao na dati mga fence-sitter lang, nag-o-observe lang, o kaya satisfied na sila na hindi sila nagse-share ng mga disinformation, ay ngayon sana ay maging keyboard warrior din sila towards fighting disinformation (I hope that those who used to be just fence-sitters and observers or satisfied that they do not share disinformation themselves, now they should be keyboard warriors towards fighting disinformation, too),” Tima said.

Kung meron tayong oras para mag-browse sa Facebook at social media, meron din sana tayong oras mag-research at tumingin sa mga reputable websites kung ano talaga ’yung totoo (If we have the time to browse Facebook and social media, we should also have the time to research and look into reputable websites for the truth),” he added.

Responding to a question during the forum regarding the shutdown of the free-to-air television and radio operations of ABS-CBN Corp., Tima admitted that “medyo malaki ’yung pilay (there has been a huge handicap) when it comes to traditional media” because of the network’s reach in the rural areas.

On the other hand, he noted that social media have become both the biggest platform and the biggest source of disinformation.

“We need all the resources we can muster para mas maabot natin ’yung pinakamaraming Pilipino (so we can reach the majority of Filipinos),” Tima emphasized.

“Baby steps man siya, mas marami man ’yung trolls, mas madali man sila magpa-trend at magpa-viral... magsimula tayo sa maliit. I’m sure mas marami pa rin naman tayong naniniwala sa totoong information (These may be baby steps, there may be more trolls, it may be easier for them to trend and go viral, but let’s start small. I’m sure there’s still more of us who believe in true information),” he said.