As the coronavirus spreads all across the world, so does false information about it. A few days after the Enhanced Community Quarantine was declared in Metro Manila, the Messenger function of Facebook was abuzz with forwarded messages featuring a video purportedly from an Australian News outfit that declared bananas as a way to protect oneself from Covid-19.
It was so widespread that even then-Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo, falling victim to the fake news item, mentioned it in one of his press briefings. The result was a mass-buying of the tropical fruit at public markets, driving more people out of the safety of their homes in the hopes of being “safe” from the alarming disease. Of course, the video was proven to be false, and bananas, although high in nutrition, does not guarantee protection from the virus.
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In an era where information spreads so fast through so many different channels, it is important to note the role that journalism plays in the face of the pandemic. This is why the Thomson Reuters Foundation hosted a web seminar in Manila on Trusted Content, Fake News, and The Law in the Time of Covid-19. The talks featured Thomson Reuters Foundation CEO Antonio Zappula, Reuter Philippine Bureau Deputy Bureau Chief Karen Lema, and Former Ateneo School of Government Dean Atty. Tony La Vina.
Zappula gave a talk on the areas where the company is focused on in this time of global crisis, citing Media Freedom as one of the top three. “In any free fair and informed society, and that media outlets are facing unprecedented and technological challenges as there is an alarming increase in attacks on journalists around the world,” he explained. Another pillar to their work is on Inclusive Economies, combating forced labor and human trafficking, promoting fair and sustainable economic and business models, and promoting and protecting data and digital rights.
Lema notes the need for trusted content now more than ever. She shared a message sent by a septuagenarian to the Department of Health’s Facebook page, requesting to disprove certain posts that are circulating online as these cause “more panic, confusion, and false hopes.” She showed examples of Reuters articles published all over the world demonstrating the impact of misinformation and inaccurate advice on social media that could make the disease outbreaks worse. In Morocco, police made over a dozen arrests of those who spread fake news that the coronavirus disease did not exist. “The World Health Organization labeled the spread of fake news on the outbreak as an infodemic, with its Digital Business Solutions manager Andrew Pattison telling BBC Technology News that ‘it spreads faster than the virus.’"
Facebook has established a partnership with Reuters and other news providers such as Associated Press and Agence France-Presse to combat fake news as early as February 2020, with the aim of fact-checking posts both on that platform and on Instagram—primarily in connection with the coming US elections. But this has proven to have a wider, more global reach that is much needed today.
Bayanihan Act and media freedom
For his part of the seminar, La Vina underscores the need for freedom of information, speech expression, and freedom of the press as absolute freedoms. Both individuals and society as a whole need these freedoms for their own good.
He cited Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code, which punishes dissemination of fake news Criminal libel provisions of the RPC. He also brought up the Cyber Crime Law, which provides that these RPC crimes can be committed via the internet. He adds that under section 6 of the Bayanihan Act, "Individuals or groups creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion; and those participating in cyber incidents that make use or take advantage of the current crisis situation to prey on the public through scams, phishing, fraudulent emails, or other similar acts."
Limits on these freedoms, La Vina pointed out, are through censorship and libel laws, provided there is, “clear and present danger of a threat that is real, serious, and imminent that the state has the right to prevent for the good of all. With this, the burden is on the state to prove the clear and present danger and the judiciary will ultimately decide.”
On this note, he reflected that the problem with criminalizing fake news dissemination is the question of who actually determines if the info is fake and harmful. “Governments all over the world uses these laws to go after legitimate critics and dissenters, creating a chilling effect. In pandemics, there is a lot of scientific uncertainty and debate and that must be allowed," La Vina said. "The best antidote to fake news and hateful views are truthful news and good perspectives. The alternative to criminalization is to put the responsibility on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to immediately take out fake news and hateful views based on legal standards.”
Reuters editor in chief Stephen J. Adler sums up the need for legitimate sources of information from media outlets that are kept free: “When people are properly informed, fake news does not stand a chance.”