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Internet Governance 1 April 2020

Disinformation: The Invisible Sword Dividing Society

Sherry Shek
By Sherry ShekGuest Author

Supermarkets have finally restocked their toilet paper in Hong Kong after weeks of panic buying when a rumor about toilet paper shortage due to closure of factories in China went viral. The toilet paper shortage did happen, but it was because of panic buying, not because of factory closure in China. How did the rumor spread? Was disinformation one of the culprits?

On February 25th, the Internet Society Hong Kong Chapter organized a Hong Kong Internet Governance Forum Roundtable on disinformation. On the panel was Eric Wishart, News Management Member at Agence France-Presse (AFP); Masato Kajimoto from the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong; George Chen, Head of Public Policy (Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mongolia) at Facebook; and Charles Mok, a local Legislative Councillor.

Did someone spread “disinformation” about toilet paper shortage?

While a lot of people think that the rumor on toilet paper shortage is a piece of disinformation or fake news, Masato reminded us that it actually is not. Disinformation is information that is deliberately created to deceive people, which is different from “misleading information.” In the case of panic buying toilet paper, some people made an opinion about toilet paper production in light of factory closure – that is, the shortage would logically happen if factories could not operate.

Masato didn’t care much about the rumor when he first read about it in the morning. But by the same afternoon, all the toilet paper was sold out. He did not expect this to happen as he thought it was just a prediction someone made and spread online. Journalists reported on this widely by emphasizing the empty shelves in supermarkets, which led to more panic buying, and this was how the rumor spread.

The trap for journalists in reporting

Journalist followed and reinforced the narratives of the rumor with the headline: “Empty Shelves in Supermarkets.” Eric pointed out that this is a big trap for journalists. It is easy for journalists to selectively choose stories that fit into certain narratives and ignore the facts, which Eric refers to as “confirmation bias.” This is where a critical mind needs to come in, and journalists should avoid falling into this trap of following narratives.

What measures have news agencies taken to combat fake news?

In consuming news information, we should choose our sources carefully, and news agencies are one of the main sources. Eric shared the ways in which AFP has built its credibility. He stressed the importance of gaining public trust through transparency of editorial procedures and efforts of fact-checking in partnership with other organizations. For example, AFP has set up editorial standards and best practices, as well as principles of sourcing. AFP has also joined the International Fact-Checking Network and is an independent fact-checker for Facebook. These efforts have built AFP’s credibility, which AFP can utilize in the battle against disinformation.

What is the role of social media in combating fake news?

Another major source for news information is through social media platforms. George shared that Facebook partners with independent third-party fact-checkers like AFP to help them identify certain types of misinformation for removal, especially when the information violates their community standards. Repeated offenders will also have their account or page taken down. Another measure is to reduce the spread of misinformation in news feeds. When a piece of fake news is flagged, there will be a note under the post saying this is a misinformation verified by the fact-checker.

Is legislation a way out?

Although different sectors have contributed to the battle against fake news, we are still seeing its viral spread. Some legislative councillors in Hong Kong have thus proposed a fake news law in Hong Kong. However, Charles expressed his grave concern about such law. Charles pointed out that a fake news law can only function effectively when there are checks and balances in the government. But there has been an increasing number of requests made by the Hong Kong government to social media companies to remove certain content, and the Hong Kong Police Force has accused social media of damaging their reputation. Charles worried that a fake news law would be abused to suppress freedom of speech in Hong Kong.

Let’s face it: the weaponized fake news

We have discussed ways of combating fake news from different angles, but they cannot stop disinformation if people don’t distinguish between facts and opinions. Education is a major effort that the government, as well as different stakeholders, should push for.

Fake news is unfortunately an outcome of social and political conflicts, stemming from the huge pluralization in Hong Kong. A lot of the “fake news problems” we have witnessed in Hong Kong – posts about Joshua Wong’s U.S. green card, police pepper spraying a stray dog, etc. – were used to shape the information into narratives that favor certain sides of the political spectrum. In this regard, they are propaganda and therefore, political problems. Sadly, not much of the measures described above can help with these problems.

Watch the recorded live stream of the roundtable.

Encryption is essential for protecting freedom of expression and privacy. Read the fact sheet: How Encryption Can Protect Journalists and the Free Press.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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