Better information makes for a better Internet

Last updated: 13 July 2020

Published on: 13 July 2020

By Kami Navarro

As the pandemic continues to upend daily life worldwide, much attention has rightly been focused on the coronavirus’ risks to physical health. Although COVID-19 is currently “public enemy number one”, there’s another common enemy we need to look out for: an “infodemic” of half-truths and falsehoods, fuelled by social media.

With many people still shuttered inside their homes, social media has been an indispensable source of public health advice—especially in Singapore. According to the Reuters Institute’ 2019 Digital News Report, online media accounts for the bulk of local news consumption at 87%. However, the way knowledge is disseminated and consumed online leaves many people proneto spreading unverified information.. From harmless quack remedies to outright fake news, there’s no question that the infodemic is spreading just as quickly as the virus—if not even faster.

In this period of uncertainty, here’s how you can remain vigilant and do your part in counteracting the COVID-19 infodemic, with a few tips from the Better Internet Campaign of the Media Literacy Council (MLC) and Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA).

Distinguishing fact from fiction

While scientists around the globe are racing to fully understand COVID-19, there’s still much we don’t know. Unfortunately, this has made the coronavirus a veritable breeding ground for outrageous claims. Some of the most egregious examples include a bizarre conspiracy theory about how radiation from 5G reportedly causes COVID-19 symptoms. Meanwhile, another chain message widely circulated over platforms like WhatsApp asserts that a daily regimen of sunlight, vitamin C, and warm, alkaline foods including dandelion (with a supposed pH of 22.7) cures COVID-19. Never mind that the pH scale only goes up to 14!

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Wrong grammar, no source—a classic example of unreliable information! Photo: Screengrab from forwarded WhatsApp message by Kami Navarro

By casting a critical eye on everything you encounter online, it’s easy to spot misinformation once you recognise its hallmark features. For example, unverified claims are often accompanied by clickbait titles that are meant to grab attention and clicks, eventually leading to advertising revenue for the site. These sensational headlines typically include words like ‘Amazing,’ ‘Unbelievable’ and an excessive amount of exclamation points.

Besides the sensationalist headline, shoddy writing chockful of grammatical errors is another common characteristic of fake news. Likewise, the writers of these articles or messages are typically unnamed, and no verified sources are mentioned, as seen in the photo below that went viral over several messaging platforms.

But misinformation isn’t the only manifestation of the infodemic. With millions of people racking up record hours online as a result of the pandemic, unscrupulous characters have taken advantage of this by sending out scam emails. For instance, in late March, an email supposedly sent by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong claimed to give updates on the current COVID-19 situation and invited readers to send in their responses.

Another scam, this time impersonating large organisations like NTUC, exploits the Self-employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) to trick unsuspecting readers into clicking suspicious links and providing personal information like credit or debit card details and a one-time password.

Though these emails have a deceivingly professional feel, it’s important to take note of the sender’s address as well as the overall tone. Generally, these scam emails tend to be sent from addresses with variations of the real organisational or institutional addresses (e.g: lhl@leehsien-loong.com or stratcomms@ntuc.org.sg). However, trustworthy organisations and public figures will never ask citizens for personal information such as your bank details or passport number over channels like email, voice calls and text messages.

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Screenshot of the NTUC scam email. Take note of the seemingly official sender address! Photo: NTUC Facebook Page

Doing away with disinformation

Knowing how to spot fake news and online scams is just a one way of curbing the COVID-19 infodemic. We must also learn how to proactively prevent the further spread of such harmful messages.

1. Fighting fake news starts with knowing how to discern reliable news sources

Mainstream outlets maintain strict editorial standards, giving an assurance that news on these sites have been thoroughly fact-checked. As the primary source of information for many public services, government agency sites like Gov.sg are also credible. On social media sites like Facebook, citizen-run fact-checking pages like factually.sg help dispel misinformation and provide timely updates in a clear and understandable manner. Meanwhile, up-to-date scientific information can be found on dedicated sites like Nature, Science and EurekAlert! For science news that’s closer to home, there is the Singapore-based Asian Scientist Magazine.

2. Make it a habit to cross-check any information on the Internet with the aforementioned sources

This is especially crucial if the text quotes or references sources like government agencies, public figures or prominent subject matter experts. For instance, last March, rumours had spread that Prime Minister Lee would be raising the DORSCON alert to Red, the highest level. Simply checking the Health Ministry or Gov.sg websites would’ve quickly confirmed that this rumour was untrue.

If you’re constantly bombarded with fake news by your well-meaning friends or relatives, take the time to let the person know that the content is false, respectfully correct the information and share with them useful digital literacy tips—just like the ones we have listed here! In the same vein, the buck should stop with you. Take care to not spread or forward any falsehoods yourself, and report instances of fake news when you can.

The same principles also apply when avoiding online scams. Be alert at all times, and always verify the sender’s organisation or business by cross-checking credible sources like official websites. Remember to only share personal details with trusted sites that have the cybersecurity measures in place to protect your information. Once again, do your part and immediately flag online scams to authorities. If all else fails, ignore and block these anonymous senders so that your inbox may finally be left in peace.

In trying times like these, it’s best to keep in mind that the availability of accurate health information literally saves lives. While seemingly insignficant, your responsible actions online ensure that critical, life-saving information is easily available to those who need them the most.