Bikash Sharma, a lab technician from Kawasoti municipality of Nawalpur district in Gandaki Province, encounters a barrage of fake news on his Facebook page every single day. A few days ago, when he read a post claiming alcoholics and youths in general do not get the novel coronavirus, he could only laugh. Yet this is no laughing matter.
Nepali Online News, a Facebook group with 1.2 million members, had a recent ‘Breaking News’ from one Aichi Auto, claiming that the death toll from Covid-19 in Nepal had reached nine by May 26, five more than the official figure. Another post by ‘news36media’ said the coronavirus could be on the verge of ‘self-extinction’ as it mutates.
“Many of the posts are pure rumors. Sometimes they are funny, but often they mislead,” Sharma says, as he worries about their impact on unsuspecting people who spend hours scrolling their newsfeed. He himself spends around 3-4 hours a day on Facebook, filtering through the flood of fake information.
The use of social media has increased during the lockdown, and Facebook is easily the most popular social media platform in Nepal. According to Internet World Stats data, as of 31 January 2020, over 10.4 million Nepalis were using Facebook.
Presently, all newspapers, TV channels, and radio stations use Facebook to promote their content. There is news update almost every second. Even too much of authentic news is problematic in these sad times, but when the authentic stuff is mixed with fake news, it can be doubly confusing. There are plenty of illegal ‘news’ portals that barrage Facebook newsfeed with fake news. In relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, UNESCO and WHO have often raised their concerns about the impact of such fake news.
Ashirbad Adhikari, an aircraft maintenance technician in Kathmandu, sees that in the haste of posting something interesting, people often post wrong information. “For example, people claim the number of corona infections has risen. Even the news portals don’t realize that basing such claim on Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) is misleading,” he says.
Sujan Shrestha, president of Psychbigyan Network Nepal, a youth-led initiative that promotes mental health, thinks the fear created by fake news gradually erodes people’s sense of control and fosters a sense of panic. As the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic is uncertain, people are always on the lookout for information that might make the future more certain. “Facebook newsfeed is an easy means to do that. But you may also be unnecessarily burdening your mind in the process,” Shrestha says.
This is especially problematic during the lockdown, he says, as prolonged confinement has already weakened people’s cognitive capacity.
Shrestha also mentions the danger of falling for conspiracy theories, such as Bill Gates engineering the pandemic or China creating an artificial virus to sell its products. “If an influential person posts such a conspiracy theory, a fraction of people will certainly believe it,” he adds. “And by doing so they may put their own health as well as the health of their loved ones in jeopardy.”
Pradip Dhakal, an admin of Nepali Online News, the Facebook group that has seen its fair share of fake news posted by its many members, says the act of creating and spreading fake news is a misuse of media platforms. “The registered news portals are less likely to spread fake news than the unregistered and illegal ones,” he says, adding that these illegal portals should be immediately shut. He advises people to rely only on the sites that they know are registered.
Some people blame the Facebook management for ignoring the gravity of the matter. Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and CEO of Facebook, had around a month ago assured immediate action to check the spread of fake news. He claims Facebook has marked over 4,000 pieces of Covid-19 related content as false. Yet that seems to have made little impact on creation and dissemination of fake news during these troubled times.