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Pandemic of online misinformation on Covid-19 takes its toll

SINGAPORE – When Mr Jeswant Singh, 68, wants the latest update on the Covid-19 pandemic, he scrolls through his mobile phone for WhatsApp messages from his friends.

He showed The Straits Times messages he received with charts, videos and big words.

The information must be true because “all these messages and information are going viral already”, said Mr Singh, a retired maintenance officer who has received two doses and is waiting for his third.

Professor May O. Lwin from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information said: “The amount and speed of information that has flowed from this one disease is unprecedented.

“The public, and even those studying the virus, have to navigate, decipher and respond to rapidly evolving sets of information – which may not always be consistent – on numerous platforms.”

This has been going on for more than a year now. The Government had in April last year warned about fake messages and unfounded rumours circulating related to Covid-19.

Part of the problem has also been the gaps in information, given how new this disease is and how much is still being discovered about Covid-19 as the pandemic unfolds.

In June, a group of doctors penned an open letter to the chairman of the Expert Committee on Covid-19 Vaccination, arguing for a halt in the use of mRNA vaccines on young people here.

They had cited a case in the United States, where a 13-year-old died after receiving the second dose of his Covid-19 vaccination. The incident prompted an investigation by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The doctors received a strong reply from Singapore’s expert committee on Covid-19 vaccination and a senior infectious diseases specialist from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, who countered the claims of potential heart problems from the vaccines.

One website fuelling the issue is Healing the Divide, started by Ms Iris Koh, 45, who said she did so to fill an information gap.

“I didn’t plan to be doing what I’m doing now. As I started speaking up, many people starting approaching me and talking to me because they too are very concerned and worried and they don’t know who to voice their concerns to.”

She shares the information and stories on WhatsApp, several Telegram groups, her YouTube channel and the website.


Ms Iris Koh said she started website Healing the Divide to fill an information gap about Covid-19. She shares stories on WhatsApp, several Telegram groups, her YouTube channel and the website. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE


Mr Jeswant Singh turns to WhatsApp messages from his friends for the latest information about the Covid-19 pandemic. ST PHOTO: WALLACE WOON

Another such group calls itself Truth Warriors, which shares links to articles produced by several foreign doctors and overseas groups that have been discredited by organisations such as the CDC.

It describes itself as a “community repository of evidence-based information on global developments surrounding Covid-19”, sharing information on SG Suspected Vaccine Injuries and SG Covid La Kopi Telegram groups.

On Oct 15, the Ministry of Health had to refute claims by Truth Warriors that anti-parasitic drug ivermectin is safe and effective for treating Covid-19.

Healing the Divide Discussion – with nearly 3,000 members – was criticised when it suggested people flood the National Care Hotline with calls.

The Ministries of Health and Social and Family Development warned that it will take action against people who disrupt essential call centre operations or encourage others to do so.

Experts advised users of social media to be careful and responsible with what they share, and check the context in which it was written as well as whether it is corroborated by other sources.

People should also look to reliable information from sources such as Singapore’s Health Ministry, the World Health Organisation, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, CDC website, and peer reviewed journals.

Should confusion remain, the public should trust credible scientists and health authorities rather than subscribers to social media, who do not need to be responsible for millions of lives, and thus feel no accountability to anyone for the theories they so willingly pass along, experts whom ST previously spoke to said.

Infectious disease expert Leong Hoe Nam, who is from the Rophi Clinic at Mount Elizabeth Novena, said: “The environment for an active discussion of vaccines has turned acidic.”

“This isn’t healthy for the population in general,” he added.

“The rising number is a test of our social cohesiveness and our collective strength. Do we fall as disparate individuals or stand as one united people.”

  • Additional reporting by Wallace Woon and Yeo Shu Hui

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