Equip people with information on coronavirus to earn trust: The Star

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – As the coronavirus spreads rapidly across the globe, misinformation about this virus that has already claimed 259 lives as of Sunday (Feb 2) – all of them in China – has also evolved on social media.

In Malaysia, false information – ranging from untruthful claims and baseless theories to racist remarks aimed at creating panic and taking potshots at a certain community for political mileage has also emerged.

The outbreak is just the latest test of the government’s social networks’ ability to handle the spread of false and dangerous information.

While the authorities, particularly the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and the police, must be praised for their speedy efforts to nab those who spread fake news on the health crisis, we need to do more to put a stop to these mischievous acts.

To fight the growing number of bad news circulating on social media, the authorities have to go back to the basis of the issue – by providing real information to the people.

Making real information available and accessible can help curb fake news.

The authorities must also seize this opportunity to create awareness and educate the people on the right way to use and handle social media when seeking and addressing information on this platform.

For a start, they also have to be transparent in providing real information to earn the people’s trust in the government’s machinery.

Perhaps, due to the lack of such platforms in the past and incidents of real truth being concealed, suppressed or censored – with some politicians telling half-truth stories to hide the real issues – there exists some public mistrust of government information.

It is time for the authorities to get their act together to regain the people’s trust by having a proper channel and platform like to debunk and address fake news.

The authorities must also be bold and impose heavier punishments, including heftier fines and maximum jail sentences for those who spread false news, making it a precedent and deterrence to others.

Under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, a person can be fined up to RM50,000 (S$16,626) or imprisoned for up to one year for spreading false news.

The authorities must walk the talk if they want to educate Malaysians, making them better social media users especially when dealing and consuming public information.

A step forward now that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak a global health emergency is for the Health Ministry to provide the public with information on its comprehensive preparation and readiness in facing this crisis.

They have to list down the hospitals around the country that have been designated to handle and provide treatment for the coronavirus, their preparation and readiness in facing this health crisis and what Malaysians must do if such situations arise.

Given the scope of these anxieties, such detailed information would not only prepare the public to face and handle this health crisis with confidence but also crush and address misinformation.

To set the record straight, the global health authorities are not fully sure how contagious or deadly this new virus is.

But what they do know is that it started in early December in Wuhan, China and as of Sunday, it has infected nearly 12,000 people, a figure that surpassed the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a viral respiratory outbreak that killed 774 people in 17 countries between November 2002 and July 2003.

To date, the coronavirus is reported to have been found in 27 countries, with Malaysia recording eight cases so far.

Malaysia has said that it will take its lead from WHO when implementing policies to deal with the novel coronavirus. Equipping people with the necessary information should be one of the measures put in place.

The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media titles.

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