The Infodemic: Fake News and COVID-19
Written by Ashutosh Anand [i] and Sejal Jain [ii]
[i] [ii] Third Year students, Amity Law School, Noida
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
“If it was shared on Facebook or Twitter then it must be true.”
Coronavirus detected in Wuhan, last December was reportedly pneumonia of unknown cause and on January 22nd, this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement, identifying human-to-human transmission as the reason behind the spread of this virus. The outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30th January (World Health Organization, 2020). The rising pandemic has further given opportunities to spread fake news that has not only panicked people but has also given them false hope.
There is no area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak, which poses a high fear of fabrications to flourish fake news having the potential to weaken the nation and global response. The myths created by people are further shared on social media like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, and many other platforms that connect millions of people.
On March 19th, Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing the nation, asked the citizens to observe ‘Janta curfew’, after which there was the circulation of fake news throughout social media regarding the curfew, creating panic amongst people and sometimes even assuring them with unproven cures and prevention. The information being repeatedly amplified turns the news into a grave danger which not only creates panic within people but also poses them under the wrong impression of the government’s efforts during the time of COVID-19. Thus, it is important that we communicate the need for people to stay alert and at the same time counter all the misinformation so that people can be at ease.
The Spread of Fake News
The flow of fake news is not entirely the fault of people but it is a chain where such an overflow of information makes it difficult for people to differentiate real news from the fake ones. A major platform used by the Indian government is broadcast media to inform and keep people updated, especially the precautions to be taken regarding health and hygiene. Taking the overflow of information for granted, some people make fake audios and circulate it around, and individuals completely reliant on social media like Facebook and WhatsApp believe such news to be true. The spread of fake information has a severe effect on people when it is supported by social media influencers. It might not be intentional but a due course of carefulness is needed before posting any news on social media platforms. Moreover, fake news has the tendency to go viral easily as they usually represent people beliefs thus are more likely to socially accepted such as gargling with salt water (Mascarenhas, 2002) and drinking lemon and ginger water (Philippines, 2020) were promoted on Facebook to prevent coronavirus, which was further declined by WHO on the basis of no such scientific evidence against the false claims. Such spread of news has been defined as an “infodemic” by the World Health Organization (World Health Organisation, 2020).
Due to the reckless negligence of one person, society pays by taking the wrong course of action, further creating a cycle of harming others. The poisonous fruit of the Datura plant (The News Minute, 2020) was falsely said to prevent coronavirus as shown on TikTok, after which twelve people were hospitalized in Andhra’s Chittoor district (The Hindu, 2020). Such misinformation on false medical practices hampers the government's efforts of safeguarding public health. Instances such as this remind us of our social responsibility towards every person we are connected to through social media. Newspapers are one of the most reliable sources for acquiring accurate and true information but sometimes even a newspaper can end up publishing unverified news about the virus. Recently, the Information and Public Relations Department of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) filed an FIR against the reporter and the publisher of Jugasankha (Parashar, 2020), a Bengali daily newspaper, for publishing false reports about COVID-19 patients, causing inconvenience in maintaining law and order. To avoid such harassment, the government has passed an ordinance in the state of Assam called COVID-19 Regulation 2020, under which no organization or institution can print or telecast any information regarding the virus, without verifying it with the government first (Parashar, 2020).
Sometimes, the government itself generates fake news due to its own false claims.
In March 2020, US President Donald Trump stated that the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine had been approved by the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) for treating COVID-19 (Reed, 2020). However, the FDA later denied such approval (Goodman & Giles, 2020). With anxiety on the rise, people are inclined to accept such news due to feelings of helplessness, or a decreased sense of control during the pandemic. Such a mindset could easily result in them being targets of fake news.
The Repercussions of Fake News
The ongoing fake news is circulating faster than the virus on all platforms of social media from Facebook to Youtube, many of which contain fake information about the increase in the number of patients diagnosed with COVID-19. News like these makes people feel hopeless, which could become life-threatening especially for those going through business losses, and waiting for the situation to be back to normal in order to resume their businesses. There was news that COVID-19 could be transmitted through air, which had panicked a lot of people, especially those going out for groceries and the people who are involved in the service of supplying essential products. Rumors and fake news have an overall psychological impact on the larger population as this public health crisis has made life stressful and anxiety is on the rise. Rumors regarding a particular community spreading the disease have also developed hatred among people. Thus, the Mumbai police banned any discriminatory messages towards a particular community ( ABP News, 2020). Fake news circulating such as “Hotels restaurants, resorts all over India been closed till 15 October 2020 due to coronavirus” and “one Muslim man who attended the Delhi congregation was affected by the virus is caught in Byrnihat” (Meghalaya Police, 2020) were reported by Meghalaya Police, while this whole process of creating hatred among many sectors and communities ended up developing skepticism against the government.
Furthermore, going out to buy such products encourages people to break the government’s orders, reducing social distancing. Also, some unproven treatments of COVID-19 are poisonous, while hundreds of people have died from such news (Blair, 2020). Many religious and magical methods were also circulated around social media, one of which was the consumption of camel urine, which was later denied by WHO. The Organisation requested to avoid such practices and further addressed people to not drink camel urine, in order to avoid Respiratory Syndrome (World Health Organization, 2020). With all the proactive laws and rights, there has been transparent disclosure of data which is further being used in an unpleasant way. The Government recently cracked down the rumors and fake news asking social media companies like TikTok and Facebook to remove false news that spread misinformation and weaken the government's efforts to fight against the coronavirus (The Economic Times, 2020). Social media companies have also been asked to save details of people sharing such fake information that can be shared with law enforcement agencies when required (The Economic Times, 2020). Experts say that providing individuals with correct information is essential to analyze and implement new guidelines being issued by the government (The Economic Times, 2020).
To combat misinformation, fake news and, the message of hatred and division, the UN has taken a few steps like setting up the COVID-19 Communications Response Initiative to provide society with accurate and real news (United Nations, 2020). WhatsApp has also taken an initiative in this direction by limiting the number of forwards and indicating ‘forward’ on the top of a message so that people are aware when a message has been forwarded.
There are multiple solutions to these problems but the foremost is to know your social responsibility and deal with it in the right manner. The government must form a community to work closely with the technical and social media teams to track misinformation and fake news along with responding to them through broadcast media. They must also create an interactive chat box where all the news regarding COVID-19 shall be published such as the one created by WHO on WhatsApp (World Health Organizations, 2020), that will spread accurate information along with hope and solidarity. The laws of India are designed to counter fake news, which is especially important in the current scenario of the pandemic. Section 66D of Information and Technology Act (Economic Times, 2020) and Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act 2005 deals with the spread of false disaster-related warnings that could lead to panic. This allows the applicability of Sections 505(1), section 188 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3 of the Epidemic Disease Act 1897 for arresting those who engage in the spread of fake news. Even scientists are taking initiatives to fight against fake news during the pandemic, by dividing themselves into subgroups based on their interest and research to address all issues, for which they have been trying to connect with the government to get their research approved and are further putting it on various websites
Many initiatives have been taken by the state governments as well. The Karnataka government has collaborated with Check4Spam to track and respond to fake news by connecting users to platforms that let one check whether the news is fake or real. The public can submit fake news for verification, users can simply fill in details such as where he or she saw the fake news, website or app, and give an option to submit audios, videos, and images up to 2 megabytes size (ABP News, 2020). Through such provisions, many people have been arrested across the country but it is not enough to fight the battle against fake news. Thus, it is the need of the hour to enforce stricter laws and punishments - especially through the IT Act (Bhattacharjee, 2020). as well as the need to generate awareness among people as to how fake news can be identified. Indian does not have any particular laws combating fake news and most of the cases are filed under the Indian Penal Code or the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 (Dore, 2020). In such times of crisis, there is a need for extraordinary measures. New laws need to be made in such a way that it compacts fake news and doesn’t defy people of their fundamental rights at the name of collateral damage.
Moving from the responsibility of the government to that of people, self-checking the news is the need of the hour before sharing or forwarding any message. They must always check the publisher’s credibility by searching in-depth about the news, check the sources from where the news originated, and pay attention to the timelines of the news i.e, to check whether it is current news or old. We will have to take a few steps of our own, for our own safety. That is how society becomes more responsible. Our safety is our responsibility. If you think that the news is fake then do not click on the link otherwise it will lead search engines to promote it even more (Nagler, 2020). Also use fact-checking services, which helps in verifying the claims on social media. Be vigilant while reading the news as sometimes few spelling or grammar mistakes points out the inauthenticity of the message (Jain, Singh 2020). Since the lockdown, all the government libraries have been converted into a free online portal which can be utilized to spot fake news, especially those that talk about unproven ways to transmit the disease and cures. These small steps could make a big difference, especially in difficult times like these as we’re all in this together.
There is no doubt that fake news is a matter of serious concern when it comes to national security. Artificial intelligence can be a big leap in stopping the spread of fake news on a large scale, as AI algorithms can assess the news from the point of its origin and match the sources or references mentioned in the news with the genuine sources, thus verifying its authenticity. However, there’s a long way before such technology can be easily accessible to all.
Till then we will have to be more careful and help each other in stopping these things from affecting us more than it has already done.
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Blair, Anthony. 2020. Coronavirus fake cure horror as more than 600 killed after drinking pure alcohol. Daily Star UK. https://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/world-news/coronavirus-fake-cure-horror-more-21833421
Dora, Bhavya. 2020. Fake News, Real Arrests. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/17/fake-news-real-arrests/
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Doctors refute misleading online claims that consuming boiled ginger can cure novel coronavirus infections. AFP Philippines. 2020. https://factcheck.afp.com/doctors-refute-misleading-online-claim-consuming-boiled-ginger-can-cure-novel-coronavirus-infections
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Reed, Brad. 2020. Trump says officials are looking at malaria drug Chloroquine for coronavirus treatment: ‘We know it’s not going to kill anybody.’ Raw Story. https://www.rawstory.com/2020/03/trump-says-officials-looking-at-malaria-drug-chloroquine-for-coronavirus-treatment-we-know-its-not-going-to-kill-anybody/
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