Younten Tshedup

Reliable information have become crucial than ever in the midst of global Covid-19 pandemic, and the social media giants, Facebook clearly wants to be seen to be doing its part to stem the tide of misinformation and fake news.

Among others, the health ministry who is actively involved in scanning online platforms and working on tracing fake news was approached by Facebook India recently, through the information and communication ministry.

Facebook India provided the ministry’s Covid-19 media team a two-hour training session on how to use various features on Facebook. Officials from the ministry said that Facebook India has also offered help to identify fake news and at the same time expedite the content review for those fake news and fake accounts reported by the ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Ad coupons have also been provided to the media team to promote authentic posts to help spread Covid-19 messages to a larger audience. While the ad coupons are time bound, the activities and partnership shall remain even after the situation is over, said an official.

“We take the Covid-19 situation as an opportunity to strengthen our existing system. In terms of knowledge, we are getting to learn lot and at the same time we are also learning to be more efficient working under stressful situation, which would come in handy later.”

Similarly, Twitter for India and South Asia has approached the ministry on similar matter and the ministry is currently working with them to build a way forward.


Fake news impacts 

Officials from the media team said that as disinformation begin circulating online, they start receiving numerous calls on their hotline number including multiple messages on Facebook, emails, personal visits, and calls made to highest level government officials.

To seek clarification, people also start calling officials who are working in the field managing patients and quarantine facilities. “The time that we could spend on doing something meaningful has to be spent on clearing out what is not even there,” said an official.

What was more worrying, she said, was that the families of those who are quarantined were facing social stigma through such misinformation, fake news and rumors. “The families are not only facing financial damage but physical and mental trauma too.”

Although detrimental, no one for now has been detained in connection to spreading fake news in the country.

The ministry’s first approach is to counter the disinformation with facts through its social media and website. “We will not penalize anyone because we know people are equally worried and there is information fatigue at the moment.”

However, depending on the severity of the matter or repeated act, the ministry would report the post to Facebook or Twitter. “The post could potentially be taken down or fake accounts and groups be terminated and in the worst case scenario, we will ask the police to do the needful as the prevailing laws of the country.”

Officials added that while it would be difficult to rule out the financial motif behind spreading disinformation, there are some who do it to gain popularity.

Most of the disinformation comes from fake account holders and are spread as a satire while there are also those who spread it due to gross negligence, which then gets flared by social media within no time.

“At times people don’t intend to create fake news, rumors or misinformation but different people perceive messages differently,” said an official. “What might have started as a casual post could become viral and turn into a different information in the next few hours.”

Fake news in the wake of Covid-19 is not just a challenge for Bhutan, she said. “Globally, we feel that more than fighting the disease itself, much time is being spent fighting misinformation, fake news and rumors.”

The national Covid-19 media team is tasked to monitor and manage all media-related issues pertaining to Covid-19.

Various initiatives including the creation of 2121 Covid-19 hotline, 6060 helpline for senior citizens and five counselling helplines for those who are going through stressful time while in the quarantine have been taken up.