Coronavirus, fear and misinformation

Kompas TV discussed a prominent conspiracy theory circulating on Indonesian social media – that the coronavirus was an escaped biological weapon. Image by Kompas TV.

 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) finally declared the coronavirus outbreak a public-health emergency of international concern on 30 January. The Chinese government has put at least 20 cities in lockdown, restricting the movement of more than 50 million people. As this article was prepared for publication, at least 360 people had been killed by the virus in China, from about 17,000 confirmed cases. At least 23 other countries have reported cases, including Australia, Canada, France, Japan, the Philippines and Singapore.

 

Social media has been a double-edged sword amid this deadly epidemic. On the one hand, it has allowed improved access to information. For example, Indonesians trapped in the cities on lockdown have been able to let their friends and family know how they are doing. Videos circulating on social media of people in Wuhan shouting “Wuhan, Jiayou” or “Wuhan, keep up the fight” suggest social media has also been an important means of maintaining social solidarity in the face of the crisis.

 

Social media has also meant that it has been virtually impossible for the Chinese government to conceal the extent of the problem or attempt to manipulate access to information. Compare, for example, the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak to its efforts to cover up the SARS outbreak in late 2002 and early 2003.

 

But on the other hand, incomplete information and the rapidly evolving nature of the epidemic have provided fertile ground for the spread of rumours online. An unstoppable flood of hoaxes and misinformation have been released on social media, some of which have been picked up and amplified by traditional media.

 

The coronavirus epidemic has unleashed widespread panic, conspiracy theories about its source, racism towards ethnic Chinese, as well as jokes and memes.

 

All the above can be seen in Indonesian netizens’ response to the outbreak. Indonesian netizens have a reputation for looking at the lighter side of serious events and the coronavirus outbreak has been no exception, with gallows humour dominating a lot of Indonesian Twitter conversations.

 

In the early days of the epidemic, for example, standup comedian Reza Pardede joked about the virus on Twitter, sparking backlash for not respecting victims and their families. But even amid this largely negative response, many Indonesian netizens applauded him for his “dark humour”.

 

The response on social media has not only been dark jokes lacking empathy. Given the deep political polarisation that has occurred among Indonesians online over the past several years, it is not surprising that some netizens sought to make the virus into a political commodity.

 

Religious conservatives, for example, connected the coronavirus to human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims. While the two issues are clearly unrelated, there was widespread support for such views. Even People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) Deputy Speaker Hidayat Nur Wahid described the virus as a “correction” (presumably by God) in response to the Chinese Communist Party’s policies toward the Uighur community.

 

These kinds of lazy statements are of course dog whistles to anti-Chinese sentiment that has long been a part of Indonesian politics. But they are dangerous as they seem to imply that China somehow deserved this epidemic, or that victims do not deserve empathy because of China’s policies toward Uighur Muslims.

 

The sad part about all of this is that dark jokes and efforts to remind Indonesians about the Chinese government’s actions toward Uighurs do nothing to humanise the victims of the crisis, nor contribute to efforts to limit its impact.

 

And they end up harming the Indonesian students and citizens in cities like Wuhan. One Indonesian student, for example, said that black humour online and references to Wuhan as “zombie land” only served to make her panic further. All the students trapped in Wuhan were trying to do, she said, was to remain calm and reassure their families they were okay.

 

Conspiracy theories have also circulated widely on Indonesian social media. One of the most prominent has been the claim that the virus is actually a leaked Chinese biological weapon.

 

Disappointingly, these conspiracy theories have been so widespread that they have even been discussed seriously by mainstream media. This is almost a textbook example of how hoaxes and misinformation spread in Indonesia. Often beginning with a sourceless claim on WhatsApp or Twitter, the hoax or misleading information is discussed widely among citizens online, and then picked up and welcomed by a media lacking strong critical thinking skills. The mainstream media reporting then ends up legitimising this misleading or false information.

 

This has been a worrying pathology of Indonesian media as it has transitioned to a predominantly online model that prioritises traffic above all else. Only a few mainstream media outlets, like Tempo and Media Indonesia, have tried to debunk false claims about the coronavirus. On the whole, the mainstream media have instead played an active role in spreading misinformation.

 

Providing verified information is especially critical in situations like the coronavirus epidemic. Media organisations should recognise that participating in spreading hoaxes and misinformation will only delegitimise their organisations as a source of verified and accurate information.

 

The Ministry of Communications and Information has actually attempted to stem the flow of misinformation online, releasing a list of 36 hoaxes related to the coronavirus. The hoaxes range from the source of the outbreak to suspicions that the virus has been identified in Indonesian hospitals. If not managed by the government and responsible media organisations, these rumours could quickly lead to mass panic.

 

Indonesian efforts to respond to the coronavirus epidemic must be more than just evacuating Indonesian citizens from China, testing people returning from affected areas, and isolating and providing treatment to affected citizens.

 

A key element of responding to the coronavirus outbreak must also involve efforts to eliminate or challenge misinformation. Minimising fear and panic as a result of hoaxes and misinformation is half the job in responding to this evolving crisis, which as yet has no end in sight.