Virus misinformation fuels panic in Asia

by Rachel Blundy / Spencer Feingold

False alerts about a man shot dead at a coronavirus checkpoint, old footage of a supermarket stampede in reports of panic buying, and a 2015 video of a police raid on a brothel recirculated with a misleading claim.

A deluge of online misinformation and hoaxes during the coronavirus crisis is stoking fear and confusion across Asia, where violators of lockdown rules can face jail and hefty fines in some countries.

AFP has produced more than 150 lockdown-related misinformation reports across the region since February, when governments beyond China began introducing restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The hoaxes are created by a wide array of people with varying motives — from those looking to discredit governments and deepen religious divides, to pranksters — and then shared widely as fact.

In April, a hoax was shared on Facebook in the Philippines post its lockdown suggesting a motorcyclist had been shot dead for ignoring a virus checkpoint.

In fact, the footage — which was viewed tens of thousands of times in multiple posts — was of a police training drill.

Some users were outraged, and questioned the purportedly fatal use of force by the police, which has long been accused of human rights abuses and led President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs.

But others suggested the man had been “hard-headed” and was justly punished for stubbornly ignoring the checkpoint, echoing the types of sentiments from Duterte’s supporters who have cheered on the thousands of drug war deaths.

Other misinformation circulated in the Philippines has included doctored advisories about lockdown extensions and false posts about anti-government protesters flouting gathering bans.

Elsewhere in Asia, a Facebook post in Thailand included a video purporting to show panicked buyers scrambling for goods in Malaysia after it implemented a strict lockdown.

Thai Facebook users — who viewed the video hundreds of thousands of times — shared it with comments expressing worry there would be similar scenes in Thailand.

The clip, in fact, showed shoppers in Brazil on Black Friday, an annual day of sales, in November 2019.

“(Misinformation) has fuelled a lot of uncertainty and anxiety among people,” said Yvonne Chua, an associate professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines. (AFP)

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