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The Lunatic Fringe in Social Media Has Created an Epidemic of Misinformation, and vilification Demonizing Sri Lanka’s Friends the Chinese Over the Coronavirus Scare


Rajpal Abeynayake

It’s such a pity, what social media and media in general is doing to our friends the Chinese, these days. It shouldn’t be that way, particularly in this country. The Chinese have been our friends for thousands of years, literally.

But look what the fringe elements in social media are doing these past few weeks. They are demonizing the Chinese, and worse, making them the scapegoat for a fear psychosis over a disease that is largely a media myth.

Is this so called coronavirus that’s supposed to be spreading these days, a myth? Certain people are bound to take issue with me for saying so.

The disease, as it’s represented in the media, is largely hyperbole, and that’s my point.To that extent the ‘contagion’ is a myth, though coronavirus per se is very real, and there is a pathogen by that name that’s spreading.

But the bottom line is that the media, and social media in particular has created a scare that’s demonizing our friends, the Chinese.

So let’s resolve to educate the ignorant folks who are doing this. Firstly, the Chinese have been our extraordinary friends and allies, and it’s probably correct to say that they have been — simply put — our best friends, to use a collegial term.

It’s true that we are non aligned, and that our foreign policy, particularly now, is to eschew allying ourselves to any particular power blocks.

But that not withstanding, the Chinese have been our great friends for millennia, and in recent times when this nation was facing the tribulations of war, and resultant chronic economic malaise, the Chinese were the most consistent friends by our side.

Over one billion

Apart from that, the racially targeted social media posts regarding the alleged Chinese connection to the coronavirus are ridiculously off point, and evil. Someone may say, however, that the epicenter of the current contagion is in China, and that therefore it is incorrect to say that the Chinese connection to the coronavirus is merely ‘alleged.’

The virus spread may have begun in China, but to draw a Chinese connection in the exaggerated scaremongering that’s going on, is wrong at many levels.

China is a country of over one billion people, and a minuscule percentage arrive here as tourists from the mainland. It’s ridiculous to think that all of them are carrying the coronavirus.

But also, the racialized reaction to the Chinese connection in social media, and sometimes the mainstream media, is extremely grotesque, and ignorant.The Chinese food habits so called are being ridiculed with highly misleading articles and photographs, but the cruelty of mass animal slaughter in the so called developed world, is never spoken about.

Food borne illness in humans due to livestock farming, causes1,351 deaths each year in the United States alone, to make a relevant point. (Scallan et al., 2011).

Mass animal farming at an industrial scale is far more cruel than consuming wildlife and snakes and bats, but the Chinese food habits relating to such practices are highlighted in pathetically exaggerated fashion in social media.

Human carriers

Worse, social media, and the conventional media too to a great extent, though at a generally less outlandish level, exaggerate the dangers of the current coronavirus epidemic. There is only one known case of coronavirus infection in this country, and according to reports, the patient is a Chinese female.

But the death rate from the coronavirus is a mere two per cent, meaning that two in hundred persons contracting the contagion have died.

There is little chance that the disease will take hold here in Sri Lanka as it has in Wuhan China, for a variety of reasons. This strain of coronavirus is not spreading as fast as in mainland China, in countries to which the virus has travelled via human carriers.

This is proven, considering that there isn’t a single fatality from the virus outside of the Chinese borders, at the time of writing.

The myths and the misrepresentations in social media that’s alarmist have to stop first, and the pathetic racially tinged or outright racially motivated name calling, profiling and abuse of Chinese or East Asians resembling Chinese, has to end forthwith.

Such abuse and profiling is happening in Canada, the UK and many other developed countries as well, and this is extremely concerning too, and pathetic, but any such racially motivated and ignorant behaviour from Sri Lankans who have been friends of the Chinese for millennia, is particularly unbecoming.

It’s certainly not as bad here in Sri Lanka as it is reportedly in the West. A lot of Chinese tourists get by their business in Colombo and elsewhere, and are still effusively welcomed by Sri Lankans, and I have been personally witnessing such hospitality and warmth. This is in contrast to what’s happening in many western capitals where reportedly certain restaurants have banned ‘Chinese people’, and notices have come up in public places, asking that Chinese restaurants be given a wide berth.

The problem in this country is not the people, who are as always wonderfully warm and friendly to all comers, and this includes the Chinese, despite all the global misinformation about China and the coronavirus connection. It is the lunatic fringe in social media that’s causing this epidemic of misinformation, and vilification, sometimes bordering on hate.

A great big slice of social media so called, is in any event taken over by fake news, and even more fake values. That’s a far more dangerous virus than the coronavirus.

The bigger virus

The Chinese themselves have made an appeal through their embassy here for Sri Lankans to be unafraid of Chinese Spring break returnees during this period of concern about the virus.

However, outbound group tours have been stopped by the Chinese government.

A raft of other precautionary measures have been taken by their authorities. It’s hoped that social media lunatics and other irresponsible peripheral media alarmists would take a break under these circumstances.

In Singapore, strict measures are being taken even as events unfold, to ensure that the social media lunatic fringe doesn’t do any damage through scaremongering.

Technically at least, Singapore has a greater coronavirus ‘scare’ than Sri Lanka, with over 16 cases having been detected in the past few weeks since the outbreak began. But there isn’t a single fatality, and since the government there has taken strict precautionary and screening measures, there isn’t likely to be any in the future.

But social media laws are in place in Singapore, perhaps because the government there has recognized that such media is the bigger virus that has to be contained.

Social media can be immensely useful, and it’s a pity that both here in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, the fringe actors have given the various popular platforms a bad name.

In terms of general disinformation, social media is still a contagion in this country, and that is terribly unfortunate despite the fact that everybody acknowledges the usefulness of such new digital media.

In Singapore, amidst much debate and controversy, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was passed in Parliament on May 8, 2019, with a majority of 72 votes and came into effect on October 2, 2019.

Here is an excerpt from Singapore Legal News about that development: Quote

Fake news has been an ongoing phenomenon in Singapore.

Then in 2016, a hoax was widely shared about the alleged collapse of a roof at Punggol Waterway Terraces. This false news caused anxiety among residents, and led to the wastage of substantial resources, as grassroots leaders, police and Singapore Civil Defence Force personnel had rushed down to the scene over fears of mass casualties.

The POFMA was therefore implemented to tackle growing concerns over the scourge of fake news and misinformation, communicated particularly through various online and social media platforms. (Unquote)

Though POFMA has been widely criticized for being too restrictive and for ‘chilling’ free expression, it’s a piece of legislation that will do a lot of good during this period of wholly unnecessary coronavirus scaremongering.

Meanwhile, it’s sad to see the social media lunatic fringe undermine the usefulness of the platforms with unchecked fake news about everything from social issues, to personal issues, to politics.

Fake news is propelled by fake values, and a great deal of online fakery in general. People will argue against a POFMA equivalent here, but there is no doubting the ill effects of social media misinformation that is undoubtedly the real virus scare of our times.

Courtesy:Sunday Observer