In epidemic battle, truth must race against rumor

By Shi Tian Source:Global Times Published: 2020/2/5 21:54:01

Photo: IC

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Tuesday that it has taken actions to prevent the coronavirus epidemic from triggering "a dangerous social media 'infodemic' fueled by false information."

It is true that the epidemic has already turned social media into another "battlefield." In this era of the internet and globalization, social media has become the most important source of information for ordinary people. Especially with the upsurge in "we-media" where every netizen is able to create and spread information, credible and false information always go side by side.

Amid a public health emergency, such a phenomenon can be amplified. With little expertise, many people are prone to believe every piece of information they get and are likely to panic. Thus, any news, no matter true or false, might spark panic. American historian Daniel Boorstin once wrote, "'more information' will simply multiply the symptoms without curing the disease."

Against this backdrop, the impact of rumor must not be underestimated. If not properly handled, rumors could impede the government's reasonable measures or even cause social unrest. We should be on guard against those individuals and organizations with racist and terrorist ideas and rumor-mongers may take advantage of the crisis to stir trouble.

Above all, official information must be timely, transparent, and accurate. A country's government is the most authoritative and trusted source. If information released by the officials meets the public's needs and expectations, there will be less space for rumors to be disseminated.

In this regard, some problems did occur in the early stages of the coronavirus epidemic and offered some lessons that we can learn from. However, this does in no way mean that the government will let rumors go unchecked. The Chinese government has already made great progress, such as making daily updates on epidemic data.

Second, false information should be strictly managed and controlled. On the one hand, the authority needs to strengthen law enforcement and resolutely punish those who fabricate and spread rumors. On the other hand, officials can take the initiative to cooperate with mainstream social media platforms to promptly clarify the truth and reduce panic.

Many countries and international organizations have already begun taking steps. Several local authorities in the Chinese mainland have seriously investigated and punished rumor-mongers. 

And according to a Reuters report, at least 16 people were arrested over coronavirus posts in Malaysia, Thailand, India, Indonesia and China's Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The WHO has also worked with Google to launch a project which helps people easily access correct information on the epidemic.

Finally, the country should guide the public to maintain calm and rationality. Every ordinary person has the responsibility to raise vigilance and improve his ability to identify rumors.

Social unrest is one of the most serious consequences a public health crisis may bring. Therefore, the fight against the epidemic is also one against rumors.

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