Fake news creates real problems

March 14, 2019 - 10:00

What is the secret of a successful Facebook-based business? A huge flock of followers, striking content and thousands of interactions all help, according to internet gurus.

Illustration by Đàm Minh Trí
Viet Nam News

Khoa Thư

What is the secret of a successful Facebook-based business?

A huge flock of followers, striking content and thousands of interactions all help, according to internet gurus.

If so, the owner of an online maternity clothes shop named Mami has mastered the art by making a post on Facebook saying pork products made from African swine fever-infected pigs were being sold in Việt Nam.

With outbreaks of the disease in several northern areas, the post shocked the shop’s target customers, scaring mothers and mothers-to-be.

With nearly 300,000 followers, the information was spread at lightning speed, dominating Facebook and making the shop’s page well-known.

A wave of anxiety was created, simply by the clicks to express emotions or share to users’ circles of friends.

Another Facebooker called Trang Thao Mandy panicked netizens by making a post saying “Two people are infected with the virus. You should stop eating pork. Gross.”

Her post garnered nearly 46,000 shares and some 300 comments. 

To add veracity to the post, she attached pictures of people with greenish blue spots covering their bodies.

Of course, the people pictured were later discovered to have been suffering from streptococcus and dengue fever, neither of which result from eating pigs infected with the virus.

On a Facebook forum on pig farming, a self-proclaimed scientist named Quân announced he had developed a medicine that could cure infected pigs in just three to seven days.

In fact, there is no vaccine for African swine fever, destroying the animals is the only way to deal with them.

By spreading fake news, these people may enjoy 15 minutes of fame without knowing they are hurting farmers.

On top of the financial losses from the culling of thousands of pigs, customers avoiding pork products also hurts the food processing industry.

Traders are taking advantage of the panic to push pig prices lower, further hurting farmers.

The price for a kilogram of pork in Hà Nội has fallen from VNĐ45,000 (US$1.9) to VNĐ35,000 ($1.5) and will continue falling.

The Hà Nội Department of Education and Training on Monday asked schools not to remove pork from menus after many local schools announced they would stop serving their students pork.

Instead, the department encouraged schools to tighten management over food safety and only use meat provided by reliable suppliers.

The outbreaks of African swine fever, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, have been found mostly at smallholdings where hygiene is poor.

At the same time, local authorities in affected areas are working with food inspectors and farmers to localise outbreaks and fight the disease.

All these efforts may be useless thanks to panicked internet users.  

In 2016, five years after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, I had a chance to visit Kitakata, a small town in Fukushima where the main industries are food processing and ramen making.

Thanks to its isolated location, the town was not affected by the tragedy yet the reputation of excellent local agricultural products was ruined as customers were scared of radioactively contaminated food.

By explaining the reality of the situation and offering chances for international journalists and journalism students to see local agricultural achievements, Kitakata authorities showed hopes to improve media coverage of their products.

For Việt Nam, it is important to spread information about the epidemic but it is critical to share it with responsibility.

Vietnamese farmers, on the front lines of the fight against the disease, are in need of support of not only in epidemic prevention mechanisms but also accurate information.

On Monday, the owner of Mami maternity clothes shop was fined VNĐ20 million ($860) by the Department of Broadcast and Television for spreading fake news. The department also promised to impose proper punishments on Facebooker Trang Thao Mandy and the scientist.

VNĐ20 million is not a huge amount of money compared to the loss of farmers, yet it helps warn internet hucksters who share hoaxes.

For farmers, fake news can create real problems. At the end of the day, who will feed you if not farmers? — VNS