APRIL 19 — Since January, I have fielded questions in several interviews with the foreign press and free speech forums about how the Malaysian government is tackling misinformation and disinformation regarding the Covid-19 pandemic.
The short answer is, Putrajaya has now better utilised the infrastructure and communications assets that it has but it took a public health emergency for them to realise this.
But we are also heading towards a more authoritarian approach that favours the elites and shrinks the space of free discourse.
Of note also is the different approach at the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia (KKMM). Former minister Gobind Singh Deo had focused on improving the infrastructure and services for consumers, including pushing hard on 5G, and perhaps due to his political background, has resisted using state agencies as information channels.
His successor Saifuddin Abdullah has taken a different approach, which he made clear in the talk show Bicara Naratif on RTM’s TV1. He was the first member of Muhyiddin Yassin’s Cabinet to do so, informing the public about the government’s direction. Many more ministers would follow suit to explain their take on their portfolio.
Since then, Putrajaya has taken several approaches to tackle mis/disinformation, but also to control the government narrative on the country’s handling of Covid-19, for good and for bad.
Here we take a look at them:
The website Sebenarnya.my (Malay for “In actuality..” or even “Well, actually...”) was launched by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) in March 2017, and had been used by both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan governments to varying degrees of success.
However, the website has played an important role in combatting mis/disinformation, due to its editors being able to explain issues in more than just one sentence (a weakness seen in other methods below) and link to the original and accurate report.
Its shift in focus was obvious. In December 2019, it only had 11 posts, mostly about scams, ethno-religious provocations and addressing fears of burst dams.
By January 2020, when the first cases of Covid-19 started getting reported, the number of posts immediately jumped to 40. Three-quarters of them were related to the novel coronavirus.
Last month, as the country went into partial lockdown, it had a whopping 169 posts, mostly on Covid-19 and the Movement Control Order (MCO).
A major challenge at the website is the way it decides whether a point is “true” or “false”, and because it is a government mouthpiece rather than a new outlet, it mostly relies on government statements.
2. MCMC Quick Response Team
This was MCMC’s latest, and perhaps, most challenging effort.
Every day, KKMM’s Quick Response Team will publish several statements verifying or debunking certain viral issues, which would then be carried not only by state news agency Bernama, but also re-posted by government agencies including the National Security Council (NSC) on their own channels.
Earlier this week, KKMM secretary-general Suriani Ahmad was quoted telling Bernama TV that the team takes between 30 minutes and three hours to verify certain viral issues.
According to her, the team is headed by an officer from the KKMM Strategic Communications Division, and includes those from the ministry, MCMC and the NSC.
What can be enhanced is the way these verifications are published, which are usually in the form of one or two-liners — with no elaboration, context nor background and sometimes even focusing on the wrong questions or angles to an issue.
3. NSC’s SMS blast and Telegram group
Among the many ways, this has the most potential to be a game-changer.
An emergency notification system is not exactly a new concept. It is built into both iOS and Android operating systems.
But in Malaysia, the NSC and MCMC have collaborated with telco companies to deliver text messages through SMS instead to all mobile phone users. In short this would leave nobody out of the loop.
The problem with this method is that the NSC has not been very discerning with the kind of messages that it blasts out to the public, not to mention the tone that these take.
It has been blasting up to one SMS a day with information related to the MCO that are arguably not urgent nor time-sensitive.
This week, this included information for SMEs to register if they want to operate during phase 3 of the MCO, that Ramadan bazaars are banned, and of a ceiling price scheme for essential goods.
There are anecdotes of people feeling turned off by the tone of these messages, from the government asking the public to “be patient and obey government orders” to “warning strict action against those disobeying MCO.”
In popular number-verifying apps such as WhosCall, the NSC has even been labelled as spam which defeats its purpose of trying to reach as many people as possible.
NSC’s Telegram channel is not much better, and perhaps even worse. It is a wall of posts: of press releases and infographics, and sometimes just links to tweets from government agencies.
In short, it is filled with too much noise. Unless one is joining the channel to constantly get updated on every single aspect of how the government is tackling the matter, one is likely to miss the most important updates or directives.
Safe to say, there are also anecdotes of people just getting overwhelmed by the amount of messages they receive, so much so that they just the group just hours, or minutes after joining it. Again, defeating the purpose of such channels.
If anything, Perikatan Nasional has found seemingly more effective ways to channel the government’s narratives and views on policies, rather than just relying on state news agencies — something which both critics and supporters of PH have pointed out prior to this.
An immediate concern, however, is for MCMC and the NSC to set a strict hierarchy of its channels, to ensure that only the most important and urgent messages are blasted to the public, to avoid fatigue and an avalanche of info.
There also needs to be an effective two-way communication with the media, rather than a top-down approach and a hostile relationship that is resistant to critical reporting.
And while this is most commendable during a public health crisis, it is important to ensure that these channels do not get misused for partisan purposes later on.
It would be unforgivable if the SMS blast, for example, be used for propaganda and political messaging.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.