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How The Rise of Fake News is Complicating India’s War Against COVID-19

Fake News is travelling much faster than coronavirus in India. Even before the country reported its first case on 30th January, India’s social media was rife with fake posts about the disease’s origin, its subsequent spread and possible remedies. Once the country started reporting more cases, a torrent of fake messages began populating all major social media platforms, particularly Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, TikTok and so on.

According to a recent report by the fact checking website BOOM, COVID-19 related fake news which began climbing in the third week of March, took a massive spike in early April, particularly after the Tablighi Jamaat incident in Delhi. Out of hundreds of fact checks, the website conducted since the onset of COVID-19 in the country, as much as 35% of them were fake videos, 29% images and a similar percentage were doctored messages on range of issues such as fake diagnosis and treatment, falsified quotes by celebrities, false lockdown guidelines among other. Worryingly, after the Tablighi incident, a substantial portion of fake news was directed to target a particular minority group depicting them as the vector of the virus, thereby complicating the collective fight against a rapidly spreading global pandemic.

A Global Menace

India is not an exception to the virus of fake news. The world too is struggling with the deluge of misinformation about the evolving pandemic. The fake news surrounding the origin of virus, its subsequent spread and threats have nearly engulfed every nation, although with varied intensity. According to the data compiled by the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN), it found more than 240 million digital and social media messages globally on COVID-19 by mid-April, at an average of 3.08 million daily messages. A vast majority of these messages were found to be false or very misleading in their intent. With conspiracy theories blaming certain country, groups or communities for the spread of virus being the most popular, followed by flurry of videos of people prescribing miracle cures, some faking infections and using hot water and alcohol to prevent or to develop immunity to virus. This has led individual countries to come out with appeals and messages to counter such fake news, with even the World Health Organization (WHO) being compelled to brandish it as an “infodemic”, and appealed to people to believe only in credible and scientific information.

Why India’s fake news virus is more lethal

The crisis of fake news is much more severe in India largely because of the country’s rapidly growing social media base and sloppy regulation of social media platforms. With as much as 38 crores people using all kinds of social media platforms, second highest in the world after China, India is on the radar of most social media companies with a rapidly growing internet base. However compared to many countries, a large number of Indians are more susceptible to fake news and disinformation campaigns. The huge number of fake information regularly circulated via popular platforms such as Whatsapp and TikTok, sometimes triggers communal tensions, cases of lynching and negative stereotyping of individuals, specific groups and communities. In this time of life-threatening pandemic, this spreading of fake news has become business as usual in India.

One of the first prominent fake messages was home remedies of Vitamin C warding off the virus. Even before doctors and fact-checking sites debunked this, millions of fake messages including catchy and appealing videos promoting the miracle power of Cow Urine or Gaumutra, to cure the disease started crowding various social media platforms. Promoted by a certain group of people, this piece of fake news made many people fall into false beliefs and organize Gaumutra Drinking Parties in their areas. This alarmed ICMR, and they issued several appeals to people not to fall prey to such false cures. But yet all these kept going and in early April, a series of false videos began circulating on possible imposition of emergency by the government and a possible takeover by army. This prompted Indian Army’s Additional Director General of Public Information (AGDPI) to issue a clarification denying such rumours and fake news.

Economic and Social Effects of Fake news

Even before a single person was affected by virus in our country, worst fake news started spreading like how consuming chicken could lead to the COVID-19 infection. This false news, spread like wildfire caused massive economic damage to the poultry industry as many people stopped consuming chicken.

As per the government rule to stop internet service in the areas from where fake news getting spread, people depending on internet for their important work or people working from home faces a lot of problems. Which in turn results in huge loss for telecom operators too.

Yet, the most dangerous turn in India’s fake news epidemic is with regard to a flood of fake news depicting a particular religion or community as vector of disease. Number of videos began spreading over Whatsapp and other social media platforms depicting the group as “Corona Villains” which unfortunately gave birth to social violence in some places.

So, what’s the way forward?

To sum up, India has been fighting two viruses simultaneously one real and this one is fake but equally lethal. Fake news and information have created numerous hurdles for both central and state governments, in their fight against this pandemic.

With the existing Information Technology (IT) act proving to be toothless in tackling fake contents, authorities have found repeatedly engaged in issuing clarifications to keep people away from these rumours and fake news. Companies such as Google, Facebook have decided to create an Information Trust Alliance (ITA) to tackle fake content, but as seen it has borne less fruit. While a few people have been arrested for this, and social media platforms have been warned several times, the fake news ecosystem is continuing to flourish in a country like India where rate of literacy isn’t up to the mark yet, and significantly impacting the country’s inter-community relations along with its collective efforts against a life-threatening pandemic as lockdown 5.0 or Unlock 1.0 starts in India.


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