Some cause anxiety by spreading rumours during haze: Yaacob

SOME mischievous individuals set out to spread rumours and cause unnecessary anxiety during the recent haze, said Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday.

Their impact, he added, was amplified because of the Internet and social media. Still, he noted that Singaporeans largely helped one another.

The first of five examples of misinformation he cited took place on June 19, when the National Environment Agency (NEA) website said the Pollutant Standards Index was 321. Someone circulated an altered screenshot alleging that NEA had reported the PSI as 393.

Said Dr Yaacob: "This was a calculated and mischievous act, intended to undermine public confidence in the NEA."

On the same day, The Real Singapore website put up an article falsely attributed to Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng.

Someone had impersonated her to comment on the Government and Singaporeans' reaction to the haze, while the article was plagiarised from another netizen's Facebook comment, noted Dr Yaacob.

He also named blogger Ravi Philemon who, on June 22, alleged that a friend said nine million masks would be brought into Singapore, but none were for the public.

This was even as the Singapore Armed Forces and People's Association staff and grassroots volunteers were "working hard into the early morning" to ensure one million masks would be distributed from warehouses to community centres, to be given out to households the next day, he added.

In another case, someone accused Tan Tock Seng Hospital of jacking up the price of its N95 masks when the price remained the same. And on June 25 when rain and hail fell over western Singapore, someone alleged, "without foundation or basis in fact, that Singapore was receiving acid rain", said Dr Yaacob.

He assured MPs Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) and Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC), and Nominated MP Tan Su Shan that the Government acted by declaring the rumours false on its Cut Through The Haze microsite, before they took root and caused further alarm and harm.

In such cases, the Government may ask for a correction so that the right information is put up online or ask the site to remove the content, he added.

While Ms Tan suggested that the Media Literacy Council help people who fall prey to misinformation, content providers and the larger Internet community could verify and correct any misinformation as well, noted Dr Yaacob.

He pointed out, however, that prominent members of the online community such as Mr Philemon, had rejected the idea of an Internet Code of Conduct, and greeted the formation of the council with scepticism.

He said: "Yet, when public anxiety was highest during the days when the haze was at its worst, where were these prominent members of the online community who believed that the Internet should be left alone?

"Were they helping to clarify and reject online rumours, or were they helping to spread them or even create them?"

Striking a positive note, Dr Yaacob said many members of the online community came up with crowdsource apps to find shops where masks were available or to share air-conditioned rooms.

Others like undergraduate Jeremy Chua set up the SG Haze Rescue page on Facebook calling for the donation of excess masks.

Said Dr Yaacob: "They show that there are many good-hearted Singaporeans who know how to harness the Internet positively."

In a blog post last night responding to Dr Yaacob, Mr Philemon said that he did not fabricate the comment on the nine million masks, but simply reposted a friend's comment.

Mr Philemon had posted on Facebook last month: "Yes the 9 million masks are coming into Singapore... But none will be for the public, the entire batch will be under exclusive control by the G and all distributions of the masks will be under the tightest of scrutiny."

Yesterday, the blogger said he also went to Johor Baru to buy N95 masks when they were sold out at pharmacies here, so that he could distribute them to others.

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