Fake news, rumors, and misinformation have triggered recent panic-buying in Hong Kong, as the coronavirus epidemic in mainland China leaves the city's seven million residents struggling to find basic supplies.
Photos of supermarkets in the city with empty shelves and a story claiming that armed robbers made off with a stack of toilet paper being delivered to a neighborhood store in Mong Kok have contributed to a sense of crisis, meaning that people are consistently buying more than they need.
The rumors and fake news items then become self-fulfilling, as the panic-buying leads to genuine shortages under a "just-in-time" supply chain that works to fill projected demand under normal circumstances.
On Feb. 5, a post about toilet paper shortages in Hong Kong emerged on social media, posted by an anonymous user citing "reliable sources."
The post quickly went viral in Hong Kong, triggering panic-buying that left supermarket shelves bare of toilet paper, rice, and disinfectants.
The same phenomenon was later seen in Taiwan and Singapore.
Social media users contacted by RFA said they see large numbers of such posts claiming this or that knowledge about the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, some of which cite "experts."
Many of them said they tended to believe such posts, in the absence of any way to verify them, and quickly forwarded them to their followers, friends, and family.
"Whenever I see somebody standing in line, I go to stand in line too," a Hong Kong resident surnamed Ngan told RFA.
"Based on messages on WhatsApp, I buy toilet paper, sanitary towels, anything that [I believe] will soon be out of stock because the mainland has stopped supplying it to Hong Kong," she said.
"I don't know if the news is true or false, but it's better to believe it, because everyone is rushing to grab these things."
Running out at home
A resident surnamed Keung said she also lives in fear that supplies of certain goods will dry up as a result of the coronavirus epidemic.
"If you are running out at home, and other people have bought all of [the supplies], then it makes you even more anxious," she said.
A third Hong Kong resident surnamed Choi said much of the panic-buying is done by people who may lack the resources to verify messages they receive online.
"The older generation don't necessarily know how to get hold of further information like we do," Choi said. "If our friends tell us something, we tend to believe it."
"If there is [a rumor that there is] a rice shortage, then people are going to get very worried, because they fear not having anything to eat," she said.
Kenneth Chan, who heads the Rice Merchants' Association of Hong Kong, said there is no truth in the rumors of rice shortages, which are themselves fueling the shortage.
"Most of the time, a family will just buy one or two sacks at a time to take home," Chan said. "But in this unusual situation, they start buying eight or 10 sacks because they've heard that the border could be closed."
"This means we are unable to replenish stocks immediately."
Chan said Hongkongers shouldn't worry, because 90 percent of the city's rice supplies are sourced from Thailand and Vietnam anyway.
"There's no need for people to engage in panic-buying, because there will be more rice on the shelves," he said. "People should relax."
Stores impose limits
Retailers have begun imposing a limit on purchases of key commodities to avoid the spectacle of empty shelves, which in turn sparks more panic-buying.
Sociology professor Annie Chan of Hong Kong's Lingnan University said the additional levels of anxiety generated by the coronavirus epidemic make it even harder than usual to tell real from fake news.
"Some fake news isn't completely fake, but the people who distribute the news use different sources, different news items, integrate them, and then republish them," Chan said.
She said the level of trust in the city's government is very low following months of police violence and chief executive Carrie Lam's failure to respond adequately to the demands of the pro-democracy movement after it escalated last June.
"The government's popularity and the level of public trust in the authorities have reached a very low ebb," Chan said. "So fake news can cause much more panic [than it might have done previously]."
She said the government needs to take concrete action to demonstrate to people that their concerns are unfounded, while social media users need to stop and think before forwarding unverified information.
Reported by Lee Tsi-tsi and Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service.Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.