KUWAIT: Posting and circulation of rumors and fake news in the time of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak could have detrimental impacts on people's morale and state's ability to handle and overcome the serious health challenge, a group of Kuwaiti academics have warned as judiciary pursuing rumor-mongers. Rumors harm the society and spark panic and fear among its members, Professor of Sociology at the Kuwait University (KU) Dr Ali Al-Zubi said.

He underlined that people are already under enormous psychological stress due to the spread of the deadly virus, for which no drug has been found yet. Circulation of fake news and rumors will make things worse, he cautioned. He called for checking the credibility of any information before posting it. The onus of stopping rumors is on everyone, he emphasized, considering it a national duty at this critical time.

Zubi also urged people to refrain from disseminating information that could undermine social security and spread fear. He also advised people to seek information from the state official sources, notably spokespersons of the government and ministries as well as the ministry of information and the official Kuwaiti News Agency. Zubi believes that relying on people's conscious and awareness is good in the fight against rumor-mongers. He argues that it is better to encourage people to act responsibly than to threaten them with tough penalties.

Adequate information
Meanwhile, Professor of Political Science at the Kuwait University Dr Massouma Al-Mubarak also agreed that rumors undermine the state's plans for addressing crises. The state bodies have to stand up against rumors through providing adequate information, she said, warning that lack of information opens the door wide for rumors and misinformation. Mubarak advised the state bodies to follow up social networking sites and to be transparent in responding to any rumor that may stir panic or discontent. She noted that countering rumors is a collective responsibility on every member of the society.

Mubarak, nevertheless, called for firmly enforcing the law on those who spread rumors and tamper with the state security. "The state has to be firm especially during the current delicate time," she said. Mubarak indicated that Kuwait already has several laws that tackles disseminating of rumors and false information, namely Kuwait's penal code, the audio-visual law, or the electronic crimes law.

Grave effects
In the meantime, Kuwait University's Media Professor Dr Fawaz Al-Ajmi also warned against the grave effects of rumors on the society especially in the current exceptional circumstances. He called for synergy from the government and people to stop the flow of rumors. In this regard, Ajmi demanded the government to feed people with all important information in a timely manner to close the door in face of any rumor and to nip in the buds malicious attempts to cause public panic and anger.

Rumor-mongers are capitalizing on people's desperate need for information, he said, noting that the government has to meet their demands in this regard. He called on citizens and residents to double check the authenticity and credibility of any information before circulating it. Ajmi pointed out that the government has taken several actions to address this problem.

On Wednesday, the Government Spokesman Tareq Al-Merzem urged people to disregard rumors and fabricated video clips. "Help us to stop dissemination of the rumors .. along with fabricated video clips promoting wrong information .. do not forward these erroneous materials," he implored. On Thursday, Minister of Information Mohammad Al-Jabri stressed the significant role of mass media in rebuffing rumors over the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) situation.

Speaking to KUNA and Kuwait TV while visiting KUNA headquarters, Jabri, who doubles as Minister of State for Youth Affairs, said that amid the exceptional circumstances in the country, mass media have a crucial part to play in speedily covering relevant state decisions and precautions, as well as fighting rumors purposed to sow panic among people.

Lawsuits filed
On March 11, ministries of interior and information filed lawsuits against people who spread rumors related to coronavirus. Information Minister Jabri has also announced that the admins of 23 accounts on social media sites have been referred to the public prosecution for violating the e-media regulation act 8 (2016). The misinformation circulated by such accounts sparked confusion and controversy, thus hampering the government efforts to combat the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the minister revealed.

Furthermore, Public Prosecutor Dherar Al-Asousi has warned that stiff measures would be taken against rumormongers who insist on posting misinformation and fabrications about coronavirus on social media, websites and media. He vowed in a press statement on March 17 that anyone who may circulate false data and news about measures taken by state agencies to fight coronavirus, or air posts that could stir public panic or undermine state homage and public morale would be inevitably brought to legal accountability. - KUNA