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Experts: Fake News Compounds Threat of Coronavirus
COVID-19 displayed on a smartphone screen, against the backdrop of fake news. (Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Experts: Fake News Compounds Threat of Coronavirus

The global COVID-19 crisis has created the ideal climate for spreading fake news, Syrian social-media expert says

About 25 people were arrested by the Palestinian Authority for spreading false news about COVID-19, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco also nabbed purveyors of untrue information about the pandemic, sources said.

One man was arrested in Bethlehem while others were seized by the authorities in other Palestinian cities for spreading misleading claims about the coronavirus and the illness it causes, said Ziad al-Rifae, head of Sada Social, a Ramallah-based company that monitors Palestinian social-media content to combat fake news.

At least 120 false rumors have been spread about COVID-19 in the Palestinian territories, including the names of alleged patients, fraudulent cures and so-called inside information, al-Rifae told The Media Line. “Some people published information about the government curfew, even before it was announced,” he added.

Sada Social works with Facebook in the United States to warn fake-news publishers. “If they don’t respond, we block the content.”

Khaled Bin Ali Batafi, a social-studies professor at Alfaisal University in Riyadh, told The Media Line that two weeks ago, a Saudi influencer created a video in which he drank what appeared to be Dettol disinfectant, indicating that it cured COVID-19.

“He was arrested by the Saudi authorities and apologized,” Batafi said. “Apparently, he was drinking juice the same color as Dettol.”

Countries have come up with new laws to handle cybercrime, including the spreading of fake news, he said. Middle Eastern governments have monitored traditional news media and so fake news was controlled, Batafi said. The newer social media channels are a “shadow media, where any person for any purpose can communicate with a large number of people, to say whatever they want.”

In Egypt, police arrested three people on March 13 for allegedly spreading false information on social media about the number of those stricken in the pandemic.

In Meknes, Morocco, a man was arrested in February for distributing fake news about the number of COVID-19 cases in the city.

Batafi urged governments to do more to fight false information and hold the publishers accountable.

“Unfortunately, some Arab states only chase fake news if it concerns the government,” he said. “Spreading incorrect information that has nothing to do with the government … could strike the fabric of society, as well as security.”

The global coronavirus crisis has created the ideal climate for the spreading of rumors, said Wisam al-Nasser, a Syrian social analyst and social media expert based in France.

“Curfews and house quarantines in most states around the world force the audience to remain at home, checking constantly for new information about the virus out of fear,” he told The Media Line. Social media channels and private family channels on platforms like WhatsApp “become tools to transfer fake news.”

Promoters of false narratives include people trying to make a quick profit. They spread information that will drive traffic to their web sites and generate reviews, he said. Some of them use religion to try to peddle alternative medicines for COVID-19.

“A woman claimed on a Lebanese MTV channel show that Saint Sharbel visited her in a dream and told her that Sharbel water cures coronavirus, creating an uproar there,” al-Nasser said.

Some media outlets invent news sources in a bid to appear to break news, which they usually copy partially from other sites. This is intended to boost their audience numbers, he said.

“Publishers are currently focusing on spreading fake news about the numbers of people infected with coronavirus, areas where the virus is spreading or scientific updates on developing a serum” from antibodies, he said. They “forget that this news changes” rapidly.

Some media outlets create panic by emphasizing the negative, such as the number of deaths, without reporting how many patients recovered, al-Nasser said. They offer news about supermarkets closing without saying when they are open.

“Politicians also were a source of fake news … in Italy, the United States and the United Kingdom when they initially downplayed the danger of the virus,” he said. “Some of them went out in public and drank beer, encouraging Italians to continue a carefree life.”

Al-Nasser also singled out US President Donald Trump, saying he “cared more about the economy than his own people’s health and once described the pandemic as a normal flu.” The statements were “reckless” and confused the public.

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially thought the best policy was to expose people to the coronavirus to get herd immunity. He and Trump changed their minds at least in part because of a report by the Imperial College London.

In countries with dictatorial governments, information such as the number of COVID-19 cases has been restricted. In “Egypt, Syria and Libya, the withholding of such information has made it harder for people to understand the seriousness of the coronavirus” situation.

In the West Bank, incorrect news has increased the panic about the pandemic, Eyad Koneh, a resident of Ramallah, told The Media Line. People believe most of what has been circulated on social media channels, he said.

“People want to think that there is a cure for the coronavirus. They believe rumors because they are afraid, but fake news scares more, most of the time,” he added.

Abeer Hremeh, who works in insurance in Ramallah, told The Media Line that news spread on social media channels “creates confusion because most of the information is wrong and misleading.”

“I have children, and false news and rumors, especially medical ones, can be really harmful,” Hremeh said.

In recent years, fake news has become a global issue and hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated to counter it.

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