Jakarta – Following the outbreak of the coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Wuhan, China, hoaxes and conspiracy theories about the novel virus have widely spread online over the past two weeks.
Communications and Information Minister Johnny G. Plate said on Monday that so far 54 false pieces of information about the virus had been discovered on Indonesian websites and social media, amplified by local media taking advantage of the issue as clickbait.
The list of the falsehoods and the counter-narrative are posted on the ministry's website.
The falsehoods range from the suggestion that eating garlic is a cure to the detection of 2019-nCoV patients in several hospitals in Indonesia and the death of some Indonesians as a result of the coronavirus.
Among the most concerning items of disinformation regard anti-China sentiment targeting the Chinese, including Indonesians of Chinese descent, such as the warning to throw away China-made Xiaomi phones, avoid using Chinese products or receiving packages from China and staying away from Chinese people as they can transmit the disease.
Another hoax is a Facebook post calling the coronavirus a weapon developed by the Chinese Communist regime to eradicate Muslims. These hoaxes only add to the long history of prejudice against the Chinese in Indonesia.
The minister called on people to stop spreading the hoaxes. "Please don't immediately forward any posts and messages about the coronavirus that is not verified yet," he said.
He added that the hoax spread could negatively affect Indonesian tourism and the economy.
The government has declared a ban on all travel to and from mainland China by suspending visa-free and visa-on-arrival provisions for Chinese citizens, to prevent the spread of the virus. This is likely to reduce the number of Chinese tourists coming to Indonesia. From December 2019 to January, around 10,000 tourists from China canceled trips to Bali.
But Johnny said, with many other countries also banning travel to China, foreign tourists worldwide would look for another tourism destination and Indonesia could be an option.
Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Wishnutama Kusubandio also said last week that Indonesia had other potential tourist sources including from the United States and European countries.
"That's why we have to curb the hoaxes so that tourists will not hesitate to come here," Johnny said.
As of Tuesday, the 2019-nCoV had killed some 426 people in China and infected around 17,000 globally. No cases have been confirmed as yet in Indonesia.
Social media analyst Ismail Fahmi said that the spread of hoax news could lead to mass panic and public distrust in the government in the most extreme case. "Frightened people will do anything to avoid risk, including not going to public places. This could hamper economic activities," he said.
Ismail added that the misinformation on social media was also due to the absence of an official source of information that distributed updates on the coronavirus periodically. "Sometimes the media is not enough. The Singapore government, for example, has made an official WhatsApp account to disseminate updates on the coronavirus."
Johnny said the ministry was currently considering sending text messages to the public, alerting them to avoid hoaxes.
So far, the ministry has not taken down any of the false claims. "We're sending a warning first. If they don't conform, then we won't hesitate to take down the posts and take stern action against those who disseminate hoaxes," he said.
These steps appear rather slow and soft compared to neighboring Malaysia where four individuals were recently arrested for posting and distributing false information about the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the head of health at Facebook, Kang-Xing Jin, said Facebook was working with third-party fact-checkers to review content and debunk false claims on the coronavirus. It also sends notifications to users who have already shared or are trying to share the content to alert them that it has been fact-checked. Facebook will also remove content with false information that has been flagged by global health organizations and local health authorities.
Facebook Indonesia spokesperson Putri Dewanti said Facebook Indonesia adhered to the Facebook policy but she declined to answer whether posts in the Indonesian Facebook community had been removed. (aly)