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|Fake news is no new phenomenon but is becoming more prevalent through modern communication channels. Photo: Le Toan|
Fake news is nothing of a rare bird in any part of the world. For some, the issue has become more infuriating at a time when even presidents of global superpowers decry false information, even though what they are complaining about is wholly accurate, and simply just what they do not want to hear.
In Vietnam, fighting fake news on social media calls for considerable efforts when there are nearly 70 million internet users and 65 million active social media users, who account for approximately 70 per cent of the total population, according to statistics from digital media agency We Are Social.
In addition, each user spends an average of 6.5 hours a day on the internet, which means there are massive amounts of information generated and running through online platforms. And while some information is trustworthy, a lot more is not, and an avalanche of them finds its way to websites, blog posts, and forums to overshadow level-headed news from reliable sources with their uproarious headlines, overinflated claims, and downright falsities.
On the night of March 6, the Ministry of Health announced the first COVID-19 case in Hanoi. The news quickly went viral and left parts of the city in chaos. Seizing on the bunch of articles about Patient 17 which included the patient’s name, netizens did not miss out on the opportunity to dig deeper into the patient’s personal life and liven up their newsfeeds by widely sharing straight-up rumours around her travel itinerary and health status.
Without the least bit of verification, these rumours were taken as fact by many.
Hundreds of people attending events in Hanoi fell into panic because of rumours that Patient 17 went to the same events, and inaccurate photos were shared widely. Supermarkets, wet markets, and convenience stores in not only the capital but other localities became battlefields as people rushed to stock up, causing a temporary shortage and driving up the price of foodstuff.
As the authorities were quick to stage inspections and reassure the public, the panic quickly began to dissipate.
Ngoc Diep, living in Hanoi’s Dong Da district, told VIR, “Every day when I checked my social networks, I was confused by the overwhelming amount of information of the disease. There were posts about more cases and even deaths, and insinuations that the government is concealing information. My mind was so tangled up with uncertainty that I was even afraid to go outside.”
She is just one of the victims of bogus rumours spreading on social networks, which gained tremendous impetus since the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic.
False health advice, such as eating chicken eggs or marjoram to prevent infection, as well as fabricated information about infected and quarantined people are posted every day to garner hundreds of likes and shares.
Aside from drawing the community’s attention to win fame and further business interests, fake news are also a tool for reactionary individuals and organisations to sow seeds of dissent and further their social and political agendas in the country.
News of the doomsday coming, criticising authorities draw the eye and can often dupe the public which is not trained in spotting false information, inciting fights in the comment sections and online forums and even bringing about enormous economic losses and threatening national security.
The COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest topical excuse for fake news. Back in 2019, the preferred target was the African swine fever, when a Facebook user, for her own interest, began spreading false rumours and called for a pork boycott.
The African swine fever brought difficulties to not only pig-farmers but related feed suppliers and the entire agricultural sector by reducing prices and increasing supply shortages.
Similarly, Ninh Binh Export Foodstuff And Agricultural Processing JSC and its director Pham Xuan Truong were once “terrorised” and threatened (even by local celebrities) over a picture of canned dog meat bearing the company’s logo.
Truong had to clarify that the company did pilot such a product 15 years ago but the product never went into distribution. Nevertheless, the rumour shook both the company’s business performance and reputation.
To check the spread of dangerours fake news, Vietnam has begun handing out bitter pills.
In January 2019, Vietnam enacted the Law on Cybersecurity. Accordingly, those violating its provisions shall, depending on the nature and seriousness of such violations, be disciplined, examined for penal liability, or even be forced to pay compensation.
Previously, several Vietnamese artists and celebrities such as Dam Vinh Hung, Ngo Thanh Van, and Cat Phuong have been fined for VND10 million ($435) each for uploading and sharing untrue information about the novel coronavirus outbreak.
However, many internet users in Vietnam are unaware of the existing law. According to data from the Ministry of Public Security, since the COVID-19 outbreak appeared in Vietnam, over 650 violators spreading fake news related to the pandemic on social networks have been addressed by authorities. More than 160 of them were monetarily sanctioned.
Hanoi Police Department also reported nearly 40 Facebook users who were fined between VND7.5-30 million each for fabricating and sharing unverified information about two patients in the city.
These depict the constant efforts of authorised agencies and the government, with intensified reviews, examinations, and action to prevent malicious information from spreading on social networks, and imposing strict penalties to violators.
Joining hands with the government to fight unverified information for a cleaner internet environment, a “righteous faction” in the Vietnamese Facebook community has launched campaigns like the “Say NO to Fake News” and “Think Carefully Before Pressing ENTER”.
“There is a new virus staining all areas of life, seriously affecting the lives of people of every walk of life – the fake news virus, which we have to stop by ourselves by raising community awareness. We have to think more carefully before pressing enter to avoid sharing fake news,” said Nguyen Duc Hiep, chairman of Hanoi Students Group 9194.
Do Anh Tuan, deputy director of the Department of Cyber Security and Hi-Tech Crime Prevention under the Ministry of Public Security, stated at the Vietnam Security Summit 2019 that “Fake news is not only a problem for society but also a significant concern for the political system.”
From a legal aspect, Bui The Vinh, a lawyer from the Hanoi Bar Association, said that Vietnam has already built up a legal corridor to address the spread of false information, which is specified in the Law on Cyber Security and the Penal Code.
Kieu Anh Vu - Manging director KAV Lawyers
A great number of individuals have taken advantage of the COVID-19 outbreak to upload false information about the epidemic, causing huge panic amongst the public.
To resolve the problem, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc signed Decree No.15/2020/ND-CP outlining the administrative fines for violations in telecommunications, radio frequency, IT, and e-transactions. The new code will take effect from April 15.
In contrast with a previous similar decree from 2013, Decree 15 clarifies responsibilities when using social networks that is stipulated at Article 101. Accordingly, users of social networks in Vietnam uploading and sharing fake news will be fined VND10-20 million ($435-870). Thus, the new code also applies to shared deeds instead of only uploading as before. However, the pity is that its sanctions are lower than the previous decree, resulting in it being powerless to prevent and admonish violators.
Criminal liability could apply for the cases causing VND100-500 million ($4,350-21,750) in damages or affecting the prestige of any individuals, companies, or organisations to illegally gain VND50-200 million ($2,175-8,700) profit.
According to Article 288 of the Criminal Code outlining sanctions for violations in telecommunications and cybersecurity, violators could be sentenced to three years of non-custodial probation or imprisonment for up to seven years.