In this webinar, Dr Quinton Temby and Ms Elina Ciptadi look at the ways COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation have spread online in Southeast Asia and illustrate efforts to counter such untruths.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME
The Media, Technology and Society Seminar Series
Tuesday, 7 April 2020 – Dr Quinton Temby, Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Ms Elina Ciptadi, a coordinator of KawalCovid19.id, spoke at a Media, Technology and Society (MTS) series webinar on “Duelling Contagions: Coronavirus and Misinformation in Southeast Asia”. They discussed how any public health response to a viral pandemic, like COVID-19, must also be prepared to tackle both the viral contagion and social contagion of both online misinformation and disinformation. The webinar was moderated by Dr Benjamin Loh.
Dr Temby began the webinar by highlighting the unique vulnerabilities of Southeast Asia to COVID-19. As a region with densely populated cities, low healthcare capacity and high exposure to the Chinese economy and travel, Dr Temby posited that Southeast Asia is particularly susceptible to the transmission of the coronavirus. He also argued that the intensified China-US rivalry on the narrative of COVID-19 has exacerbated the spread of disinformation in Southeast Asia.
Drawing upon the model of ‘duelling contagions’ which showed the relationship between social behaviours and public health outcomes in preventing the spread of influenza, Dr Temby argued that this can be extended to underscore the need to address the viral and social contagion of mis- and disinformation. Fears of the virus aggravated by social media and loss of trust in central governments undermine social cohesion and potentially result in civil unrest.
This crisis of confidence is occurring most acutely in Indonesia, where information on COVID-19 has been withheld from the public. Dr Temby suggested that the central government intent was to avoid the trauma of unrest from Indonesia’s Reformasi during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998. However, Dr Temby observed a resurgence of localism, where local and regional governments have led the response against COVID-19. For instance, Ridwan Kamil, Governor of West Java, had openly criticised the underreporting of confirmed cases announced by the central government; he had also directly bought large amounts of test kits from South Korea to conduct mass testing in West Java. Even then local fear and rejection of COVID-19 burials persist, which prompted military and police escorts for medical staff in West Java and Jakarta.
In discussing the global disinformation narrative of the virus as a biological weapon, Dr Temby described this as a propaganda war between US and China regarding the origin of the coronavirus. Such disinformation has spurred anti-Chinese sentiment among opposition activists and fuelled polarization between nationalists and Islamists. Dr Temby concluded by stressing the need to bolster confidence in information and government systems to holistically tackle the COVID-19 crisis.
Ms Ciptadi then shared the motivations which led to the inception of KawalCovid19.id. In addition to withholding of information, Indonesia officials downplayed and made jokes about the coronavirus in February 2020, prior to the emergent outbreak in the country. Concurrently, a range of false information and misinformation on traditional remedies, COVID-19 as a biological weapon and Indonesia’s apparent immunity to the COVID-19 due to its tropical climate were being disseminated on WhatsApp.
KawalCovid19.id was hence established in the absence of information leadership from the Indonesian government. It aimed to become the “one-stop source” of verified information to tackle misinformation on the coronavirus outbreak in Indonesia. After the first two confirmed cases were announced on 3rd March 2020, Indonesia and Jakarta governments released similar websites of their own (Covid19.go.id and Corona.jakarta.go.id respectively). Some local villages went further and initiated a lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Indonesia seemed to take a transparent approach towards COVID-19 and rapidly increased its testing capacity. 48 testing labs are now involved and 470,000 rapid test kits were distributed by 4th April. However, Ms Ciptadi observed that the number of hospitalized cases reported each day remained low – in the hundreds. In her assessment of the current situation, the Indonesia healthcare system is grossly unprepared for the outbreak. Moreover, the large numbers of Indonesians who returned to their hometown before Hari Raya, or Mudik, have been unaccounted for.
Ms Ciptadi concluded with four suggestions for the Indonesia government to tackle COVID-19 effectively: limit inter-state mobility, introduce mass testing, enhance data transparency, and improve quarantine facilities to separate the healthy and the sick.
The webinar was attended by 78 participants over the world wide web. An engaging question-and-answer session with the online audience followed the two presentations. Discussion revolved around various aspects of response to the crisis, such as from Islamist groups and the difference between the Ridwan Kamil and Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan’s handling of the crisis. Amongst many topics, the audience were also interested in whether KawalCovid19.id is considering collaboration with public figures to disseminate accurate and verified information to people prone to misinformation, and the prevalence of anti-Chinese sentiments in Indonesia.