Technology leads fight against infodemic of COVID-19 but Cyber Laws at back burner

As predicted by COE-EDP in previous research, fake news mongers and cybercriminals are fast updating themselves in such a manner that only macro-level efforts of the World Health Organization (WHO) are not sufficient to combat infodemic of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the world, governments and local authorities along with private groups are seen venturing into healthcare communication in a coordinated manner to flag fake news and disseminate scientific information to their people. However, there is hardly any concrete effort for reforms in cyber laws. 

COE-EDPCOE-EDP | Updated: 19-07-2020 07:34 IST | Created: 19-07-2020 07:34 IST
Technology leads fight against infodemic of COVID-19 but Cyber Laws at back burner
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Fake news intended to spread misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 has been spreading faster than the pandemic. These fake news items are made viral in the form of highly convincing texts, pictures, videos, and audiovisual content to convince the audience and motive them to like and forward. The fake news creators use social engineering, psychological tools, and communication strategies to win the confidence of their target groups.

The history of fake news is almost parallel to the news but the ‘Great Moon Hoax’, a series of six articles published in the Sun tabloid of New York starting from August 25, 1835, is considered a turning point. These fake articles that described life on the moon established the Sun as a leading and profitable newspaper of the US. While there has been fake news before and after the Great Moon Hoax, the contribution of social media in fake news is at three levels – audio-visual presentation, speed, and audiences across communities.

COVID-19 has added one more characteristic to it – a huge magnitude. The number of fake news items created and made viral on the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic has made the fake news a global problem in its real sense. However, World Health Organization (WHO) launched a war against the fake news since its Chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus formally declared the fake news on COVID-19 an infodemic in a press conference in Munich (Germany) on February 14, the fake news around the pandemic is continuing throughout the world. The Center of Excellence on Emerging Development Perspectives (COE-EDP) in research titled ‘Healthcare communication post-COVID 19: Need for new approaches and protocols to achieve resilience’ has clearly suggested the need for a coordinated effort between international, national and local organizations to fight the infodemic on COVID-19 and also to develop pandemic resilience plans for unforeseen disease outbreaks in the future. Here we present a report on the transition trajectory of global healthcare communication to help the audience to visualize the futuristic landscape in this sector.

Motives of Fake News 

Nothing is without a motive. Those create and circulate fake news always have one or more motives. There have been four main motives behind fake news on COVID-19 – satire, public opinion, advertisement revenue, business, and trade-war.

The fake news items on trade-war were mostly related to allegations against China by the US and the vice-versa regarding the former’s failure or conspiracy in the spread of the virus. These fake news items were spread by top-level authorities from both sides. According to a report of CNN, US President Donald Trump made 33 false claims about COVID-19 in the first half of March.

However, a major controversy erupted when Trump allegedly spread misinformation on ‘mail-in-ballots’ for the ensuing presidential elections wherein states are following email ballots for primaries to avoid COVID-19 infection. This led to a major crisis in the US when alleging unsubstantiated facts from his handle (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter enabled ‘fact check’ on Trump's account. Trump reacted by signing an executive order to rein in social media.

A study by Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found a set of Facebook pages and profiles that were spreading scary messages on COVID-19. Out of those 33 pages were created by a digital marketing firm to promote the selling of masks by herding people with scary messages towards the shops or online orders. Another study of the lab suggests the involvement of the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters in creating fake news to downplay the threat of COVID-19. As the cases of COVID-19 surge in Brazil, fake news was spread claiming that the coffins were without the dead bodies and HCQ (hydroxychloroquine) were proven treatment of the disease. However, these tricks of image management could not save the image of the government, and Brazil recorded 35, 930 deaths, and 6,72,846 confirmed cases till June 7. Thereafter, the Brazilian government reportedly stopped sharing death data and wiped the official site on COVID-19. 

In addition, several fake news apparently circulated to increase the sale of certain medicines, alcohol brands. In such a case the COVID-19 patients were suggested to consume a hot soup ‘500 gm Aspirin dissolved in honey with lemon’. The fake news claimed it as an indigenous formulation discovered in Italy to treat the diseases. Panic purchasing of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana were on the rise during the peak of COVID-19 in the UK which was apparently catalyzed by drug traffickers. The experts also predict an increase in drug trafficking in the post-pandemic period.  Besides, cybercriminals have also been using various tools of spreading fake news to create panic and trap the victims to fleece them.

Efforts to control Fake News and Disseminate Science  

Though the fight against the infodemic was launched by the WHO, soon after UN agencies, national authorities and private (corporate) sector also joined the battle. As the sources of fake news on COVID-19 have been innumerable which are spread across the length and breadth of the planet, COE-EDP has already suggested coordinated efforts at local, national, and international levels. Today, we see multiple efforts to ascertain the truth at various levels due to which the misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 and related issues are tested and flagged. Following are key efforts in this direction:

  • Initially, WHO was operating ‘myth busters’ and ‘your questions answered’. It soon added COVID-19 Dashboard which is of great help in disseminating true information. Presently, WHO is running several initiatives such as ‘Fake News Alert’ ‘Global Research on COVID-19’ and advisories on a range of issues. 
  • As cybercriminals started impersonating as WHO personnel or creating fake associations to seek donations on behalf of WHO, the international health body had to launch ‘Scam Alert’.
  • UN programs and specialized agencies such as UNESCO, UNDP, UN Women, have launched COVID-19 Response Plans to disseminate verified information to the target audience and contradict misinformation and disinformation.
  • National level and local level authorities such as Delhi Police in India, Prosecutor General Office of Russia, South Africa’s Department of Communication and Information have also launched and running fake news verification modules to combat the infodemic on COVID-19.
  • The media houses throughout the world are running fake news testing and awareness campaigns in one form or the other. is also running a COVID-19 Awareness Campaign titled ‘Knowing is Life: Let us fight COVID-19, Our Invisible Enemy’ to contribute to disseminating science and verified facts.
  • Female journalists in Africa used radio to create awareness among rural people in several countries such as Malawi and Cameroon.
  • Twitter on May 11 introduced a feature to label COVID-19 fake news. “These labels will apply to anyone sharing misleading information that meets the requirements of our policy, including world leaders,” said Yoel Roth, Twitter’s Head of site integrity. Similarity, Facebook, TikTok, Whats’ App also introduced features to combat fake news. Facebook also sued a techie for running deceptive advertisements and fake news on Coronavirus in a California court.

However, the misinformation and disinformation spread on social media influenced highly educated class and persons. Bollywood’s veteran film star Amitabh Bachchan was accused of sharing fake news on Twitter. The fake news on ‘5G network spreads COVID-19’ led to violent protests causing law and order problems in several cities/ countries of Europe. UK government had to field British Cabinet Officer Minister Michael Gove to convince people on unverified facts on 5G propaganda. As per media reports, Britain alone faced 87 out of 140 arson cases as ‘5G spreads COVID-19’ fake news engulfed at least 10 major European countries into its grip.

A study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism suggests a 900 percent increase in English fact-checks published between January and March 2020. The previous studies also suggest the profit-oriented motive of social media companies in promoting fake news mongers. In a global survey conducted by Canada’s Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in 2019 about 75 percent of respondents said that social media companies were responsible for their distrust on the Internet. They found social media companies only second to cybercriminals in fueling online distrust. 

However, for the first time, social media companies are taking the fake news seriously. It's probably because their home countries and communities are suffering. They all were silent on fake news until the COVID-19 outbreak was confined in East and South-East Asian countries but ignited into action after it created mayhem in North America and Europe.

Cyber Security: Artificial Intelligence and Cyber Laws 

As the virtual world or cloud became the only medium of formal and informal interactions, the number of users and data increased many times on the internet. This further increased the challenges of cybersecurity which are required to be handled at two levels – Technology (Artificial Intelligence) and Cyber Laws.

  • Artificial Intelligence 

Artificial Intelligence is playing a key role in addressing the cybersecurity threats during the COVID-19 pandemic. Twitter’s fake news labeling, What's App’s restriction on forwarding messages that were viral, Facebook’s takedown and labeling initiatives, and other social media initiatives are based on AI technologies. The interactive websites and location-based geospatial mobile apps for providing information to the people on COVID-19 status in their areas are all based on AI and Machine Learning (ML).

Singapore police deployed ‘Robo-Dogs’ in parks to tell people to maintain distance while South Korean restaurants deployed robots for surveillance and convince people to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

The scientists at India’s Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology (IIIT-Delhi) presented WashKaro App through video conferencing in WHO’s World Health Conference in Geneva on April 8. This app warns about COVID-19 containment zones and filters fake news. The governments and corporate houses are using AI-based technologies and robots to track mobility, identity violators, create awareness on protective measures of COVID-19, communicate with COVID-19 patients during quarantine and treatment, and also in core areas of medical science. Besides, sophisticated blockchain technology is also being used to protect data on websites and protect individual privacy.

  • Cyber Laws 

In their desperation to control the fake news, some governments were seen issuing warnings, threats, and even announcing penalties and punishments. There is hardly any comprehensive approach to develop or update cyber laws to handle the challenges posed by the infodemic and prepare for any unforeseen disaster/disease outbreak in the future. There seems a lack of systematic reforms in cyber laws. Some of the panic-driven reactions are as follows:

  • Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa threatened the author of a fake news item on social media for 20 years in jail for wrongly attributing him for extension of lockdown.
  • Vietnam introduced a fake news fine of 10-20 million dongs ($426-$853), equivalent to around three to six months' basic salary in Vietnam,  on people who use social media to share false, untruthful, distorted, or slanderous information on COVID-19.
  • The Indian state of Maharashtra registered 258 offenses for spreading rumors in which at least 57 persons were nabbed.

Cyber laws are very crucial in protecting the information in the virtual world and strengthen enforcement agencies. Though governments such as Australia, the US, China, and India have initiated some efforts to upgrade the rules they are still in the nascent stage and moving very slowly.  In addition to that, adequate cyber laws also act as a deterrent in protecting the vulnerable class particularly children and women from cybercrime.

Conclusion and Agenda for Discussion 

Some countries have taken initiative at their own level to combat fake news and protect their people from the dangers of misinformation and disinformation. However, these efforts and technologies need to be universalized to develop resilience for the COVID-19 pandemic and also for unforeseen pandemics in the future. As suggested by COE-EDP in the previous research ‘Healthcare communication post-COVID 19: Need for new approaches and protocols to achieve resilience’ there is greater need for coordinated efforts at local, national and global levels to develop resilience from the disease outbreaks in the future.

Despite their tall claims, social media companies seem to have preferred profit over fighting infodemic. Almost a month after they declared a crusade against infodemic on COVID-19, a study by Center for Countering Digital Hate revealed that 90 percent of the 649 fake news that was 'reported fake news' were visible on Facebook and Twitter. This highlights the need for strict cyber laws and the involvement of enforcement agencies.

The Interpol reports also suggest the cybercriminals are regularly updating their technologies and stratifies to create misinformation and disinformation with strong motives of money and fanning hate among communities. They are not only dangerous to individual consumers but also for the democracies. This was evident in a survey of Reuters Institute which concluded that the trust of people in the UK government on COVID-19 related information went down from 67 percent to 48 percent in May in a six-week duration. Besides, Media houses also suffer a downfall in the trust from 57 percent to 46 percent.

Furthermore, as the entire education system is shut down throughout the world, the students from primary to university level are either learning through online classes or are out of the school system. There is hardly any effort from governments to protect the children and youths from cybercriminals. Surprisingly, the governments throughout the world have accepted that the misinformation and disinformation on COVID-19 can pose risk to audiences by changing their behavior but they are not receptible enough to apply the same argument in case of children who are the target of predators on social media through misleading and dangerous contents. It’s high time the UN should lead the cause and come up with a comprehensive convention on cybersecurity on the pattern of child rights, women's rights, and human rights. Governments throughout the world should also make/update their cyber laws to regulate the virtual world including social media. 

VisionRI's Centre of Excellence on Emerging Development Perspectives (COE-EDP) aims to keep track of the transition trajectory of global development and works towards conceptualization, development, and mainstreaming of innovative developmental approaches, frameworks, and practices. 

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