Wuhan virus: Pofma will be used to take action against the spread of falsehoods, says Iswaran

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran at a press conference on Jan 27, 2020. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Swift action will be taken against falsehoods about the Wuhan virus as there is otherwise a grave risk they will spread and cause panic among Singaporeans, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said on Monday (Jan 27).

That is the reason there is Pofma, or the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, he added.

"We will not hesitate to use the powers under the law to take action against any party that spreads such falsehoods," he said at a press conference chaired by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and attended by several members of the fourth-generation leadership.

He noted that on Sunday night, the Pofma office issued a correction direction to online forum HardwareZone to correct a fake post that someone had died in Singapore from the virus.

Even though the post was eventually taken down, more than 4,600 unique visitors viewed it in the two and a half hours it was up, he said.

"Some who viewed the post would have shared it with others and been misled by it," Mr Iswaran said.

While information can help to inform, educate and built trust, it can be abused to spread falsehoods and create anxiety, alarm and panic, and this was being seen in the Wuhan virus situation, he added.

Several other posts alleging unverified information in recent days have prompted the authorities to issue clarifications.

On Saturday (Jan 25), a thread of messages on HardwareZone said Singapore repatriated more than 100 Wuhan tourists back to China, leading to Facebook clarifications by the Ministry of Health and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority that roundly refuted this as untrue.

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A 14-day leave of absence will be imposed for students and workers in schools, healthcare and eldercare, upon their return to Singapore from China - one of the measures by Singapore's multi-ministry task force to curb the spread of the Wuhan virus.

Last Friday, a circulating WhatsApp message also told recipients to avoid going to Tan Tock Seng Hospital and KK Women's and Children's Hospital as patients from China were being sent there.

MOH on the same day clarified on Facebook that people need not do this because all public hospitals "have strict protocols to handle and manage suspect cases", including their immediate isolation and further assessment.

Also on Friday, a separate WhatsApp message and video told people to avoid Eastpoint Mall in Simei because the first suspected case had been reported there. MOH likewise said there is no need to do so, as protocol had been followed in transporting the patient in an ambulance to hospital for further investigation.

The patient had visited Raffles Medical clinic at Eastpoint Mall the day before.

Amid growing concerns here with four confirmed cases of the illness and 42 suspected cases still pending test results, many Singaporeans have gone online to find out the latest updates and decide how they can best protect themselves.

To help Singaporeans "safely navigate the online terrain", Mr Iswaran noted that the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and MOH are working together to keep Singaporeans informed on multiple platforms, including the MOH website, the Gov.sg website, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Factually.

Television, radio, newspapers, as well as digital display panels in Housing Board flats are also being used so that all segments of society can be reached, he said.

The Gov.sg WhatsApp channel has seen more than 56,000 new subscribers since Sunday, a surge in demand which saw it experiencing some delays. Mr Iswaran said the Government is working with Facebook and WhatsApp on possible solutions to such lags, and said information continues to be available on the other listed platforms.

"We need the help and cooperation of all Singaporeans in this critical national effort to prevent misinformation and falsehoods about the Wuhan coronavirus from sowing fear and causing panic in our society.

"Please rely on information only from trusted sources," he said.

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