Melbourne, Australia received the unenviable title of being the most “locked down” city in the world after enduring more than 260 days of tough COVID-19 restrictions.

The Victorian state government’s strict “stay at home” orders including a 9pm curfew and 5km travel limit, caused thousands of people to take to the streets to protest against its COVID-19 response, in 2021. 

 As an Australian journalist covering the pandemic rallies, it was the first time I had experienced threats and abuse for simply doing my job.

“FAKE NEWS!” One man holding a sign that read “the media are lying to us” yelled in my face, as he continued insulting me and my colleague who was filming the protest, before spitting on us. 

The accusation of peddling fake news while working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the most trusted news source in the country, was a staggering experience.

While the term “fake news” has been around for centuries, U.S. President Donald Trump popularized and weaponized the term, accusing the media of purposely misleading readers and viewers, according to Assistant Professor of Digital Media Arts at St Thomas University Sky LaRell Anderson.

“I have never seen an American politician so emulated and repeated in other countries,” LaRell said. 

“[Fake news] was a phrase used actively in the academic community before Trump began using it to shout down and discredit real information and others followed.”

The Australian Communications and Media Authority found 4 in 5 Australian adults were exposed to misinformation about COVID-19 across the country, with “most online misinformation narratives originating from within small, insular communities.”

The rampant spread of misinformation during the pandemic weakened global public health efforts and contributed to social unrest, according to the Fighting Fake News report by La Trobe University in Melbourne.

The report looked at fake news laws in the Asia Pacific. Singapore and Indonesia were among the first to introduce legislation to crack down on online misinformation and disinformation, with significant jail terms and large fines for convicted offenders. 

“While these laws aim to address COVID-19 misinformation and the real-world violence and hate speech that can be caused by the spread of disinformation and misinformation, human rights experts fear the laws are also open to political misuse,” the report said. 

Getting the balance right between free speech and government overreach is a challenge for countries around the world trying to thwart the rise of fake news. 

In January, the Australian Government announced it will give the country’s media regulator new powers to try to combat online misinformation by compelling big tech companies, including Twitter and Facebook, to share data on how they are handling misinformation. 

The government is consulting with the industry and the public and plans to introduce the legislation into the federal parliament within the next three months.