As China, its territories and at least a dozen countries in four geographical regions are grappling to contain the spread of the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV), people elsewhere are being unnecessarily exposed to a virtual panic that has been caused by busybodies, fearmongers and conspiracy theorists.
Sadly, some media companies are mishandling the deluge of lies that have amplified the untruths, perhaps out of a misguided attempt to take advantage of the sensationalism as clickbait. Unlike in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, when early reports of the H5N1 avian influenza and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) hit newsstands followed by piecemeal, hard-to-get updates, news on the present-day outbreak are like the floodwaters that recently inundated the neighborhoods of Greater Jakarta.
In a matter of days, a significant amount of content on the new coronavirus’ spread was posted on a number of social media platforms and went viral.
The majority of these posts is simply mind-boggling. While some attempt to shed light on the latest virus or provide tips to prevent catching the virus, which is helpful in some ways, many others present bizarre theories.
One claims that the devastating outbreak is a punishment from God against the Chinese government for their mistreatment of the Muslim Uighur minority. Others claim to quote “experts” saying that the virus escaped a government-run laboratory in China that was developing biochemical weapons. And my heart goes out to Bill Gates, who has been accused of funding research that released the deadly virus.
No less ridiculous are those men wielding their title of “Muslim cleric”, professing that God had warned about this very outbreak while they recite verses from the Quran.
If it were just two or three such “theories”, they would be good reason to roll around on the floor in a fit of laughter. But when such posts are bombarding users on all manner of platforms, they cause nothing but deep concern.
Clicking the link of any post that is shared, even out of curiosity, prompts the platform to update the algorithm for our accounts accordingly. In the blink of an eye, text, videos and other audio-visual content will start flooding our accounts.
What is worrisome is that Indonesia has a huge number of active internet users. There were 63 million internet users across the country in 2019 alone, according to the Communications and Information Ministry. And 95 percent of these primarily use the internet for social networking.
The ministry’s data also shows that Indonesia has the world’s fourth largest number of Facebook users after the United States, Brazil and India, and the world’s largest number of Twitter users after the US, Brazil, Japan and the United Kingdom.
Indonesia has witnessed how social media has contributed to the protracted divisiveness in our social fabric during its latest political contest, the 2019 presidential election. The supporters of presidential candidates Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prabowo Subianto became embroiled in virtual hostilities in cyberspace, with some spilling over into real life.
Social media is a double-edged sword: The huge number of social media users could be used as an effective means of sharing accurate and correct information on the current outbreak, but it can also be used to spread misinformation, even disinformation. Of course, achieving the former means providing accurate, clear information as a genuine effort to appease public concerns, and not propaganda or window dressing.
It seems that nothing can stop the flood of hoaxes, lies and half-truths on social media, so the authorities should embrace the ancient adage: If you can’t beat them, then join them. They have all the channels and the power — and the creative staff — to release the dam of accurate information and flood the internet. It might take some effort to go the extra mile, but that’s part of the job.
History shows that no country can ever be truly ready for an epidemic. Indonesia should thus recall one of the most valuable lessons we have learned from battling previous outbreaks of other diseases: Be alert and be prepared — and don’t panic as a result of ignorance.
Of course, it must not be business as usual for the government in responding to the current outbreak. The country’s sheer vastness, huge population and generally poor level of sanitation and hygiene, compounded by gaps in the quality of our health services and facilities, put Indonesia at risk.
The spread of misinformation and disinformation through absurd or malicious social media content will only cause unnecessary and unfounded mass hysteria. This contemporary plague is one we can do without.
People also need to be reminded that they have the control to protect themselves and their family from catching infectious diseases by maintaining basic hygiene, for example, by washing their hands properly with soap.
In the meantime, as we wait for the government to provide a more genuine response than just stating that “Indonesia is still safe”, we can contribute to containing the spread of lies and hoaxes by keeping our fingers away from the clickbait. Let’s go back to maintaining the internet as our happy place, watching videos about pandas — and hope that they’re not susceptible to the virus.
Freelance writer based in Jakarta
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.