SINGAPORE — On Monday (Jan 27), Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran emphasised that in line with the new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), the Government will come down hard on anyone found to be spreading falsehoods about the Wuhan virus, as this action can cause fear and panic among Singaporeans.
At a press conference led by Health Minster Gan Kim Yong, where several members of the fourth-generation leadership were present, Mr Iswaran spoke on taking action against fake news surrounding the Wuhan virus outbreak.
“We will not hesitate to use the powers under the law to take action against any party that spreads such falsehoods,” Mr Iswaran underlined.
A fake fatality
Mr Iswaran’s statement comes after an incident with online forum HardwareZone. On Sunday night (Jan 26), a user put up a post which falsely stated that there had been a fatality in Singapore because of the Wuhan virus.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) posted about the incident on its Facebook page:
At 5.50pm on 26 Jan 2020, a HardwareZone Forum post claimed that a 66 year-old man died in Singapore from a newly…
“We advise members of the public to not speculate and/or spread unfounded rumours,” wrote MOH.
The website was issued a correction direction by the POFMA office to remove the fake post. HardwareZone complied with the directive and the post was eventually taken down after two and a half hours; however, more than 4,600 separate visitors had already viewed it that time period.
Iswaran expressed concern that users who read the post could have “shared it with others and been misled by it”, as false information has the power of inciting fear, anxiety and panic in people, especially in a situation that is already charged with worry.
Other instances of false news
Aside from that incident, the POFMA office has issued more correction directions and clarifications on several other posts which claimed and posted unverified information on the Wuhan virus in the last few days.
On Friday (Jan 24), a message circulating on WhatsApp alerted recipients against going to KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital and Tan Tock Seng Hospital, for the reason that infected patients from China were being sent there.
In response, the Ministry of Healthy (MOH) issued a post on Facebook, clarifying that “all public hospitals have strict protocols to handle and manage suspect cases related to the novel coronavirus”.
A message on the novel coronavirus has been circulating on WhatsApp asking the public not to visit certain public…
“If you receive this message or any other unsubstantiated information over WhatsApp or other platforms, we urge you not to forward or circulate them,” posted MOH.
There was another incident on —another WhatsApp message and video which told people to avoid Eastpoint Mall in Simei because the first suspected case had been reported there, at Raffles Medical clinic. MOH Again clarified that avoiding the mall is not necessary, as proper protocol had been followed when transporting the patient in an ambulance to hospital for further examination.
On Saturday (Jan 25), there were messages on the HardwareZone forum saying that Singapore had repatriated more than 100 Wuhan tourists back to China. This was also false news, and both MOH and the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) published corrections on Facebook.
How to steer clear of fake news online
With four confirmed cases and 42 suspected, pending cases of the Wuhan virus in Singapore, it is natural that Singaporeans are worried, concerned and scrambling for answers online regarding the quick-spreading outbreak as well as tips and tricks to protect themselves.
At the press conference, Mr Iswaran said that the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and MOH are working together to keep Singaporeans properly informed through different online platforms—MOH website, the Gov.sg website, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Factually.
The Government’s regular updates on the Wuhan virus should help citizens “safely navigate the online terrain” and steer clear of fake news on the matter.
Mr Iswaran added that the Government is also using mediums like television, newspapers, radio and digital display panels in Housing Board apartments to bring real-time updates to people.
For those experiencing delays on the Gov.sg WhatsApp group, which has had more than 56,000 new subscribers since Sunday, Mr Iswaran said the Government is working with Facebook and WhatsApp to find solutions to fix the lags and reminds Singaporeans that information on the virus will continue to be available and accessible on the aforementioned online platforms.
“Please rely on information only from trusted sources,” Mr Iswaran emphasised, adding that “the help and cooperation of all Singaporeans” is what is needed “in this critical national effort to prevent misinformation and falsehoods about the Wuhan coronavirus, from sowing fear and causing panic in our society”.