By Usha M Rodrigues
India is now the third most impacted country by COVID-19, with cases nearing 900,000 and deaths surpassing 23,000 as of July 13. India is also one of the leading nations when it comes to the sharing of ‘fake news’.
Thousands of users on popular social media platforms have viewed posts from elected members of Indian parliament advocating pseudoscience cures, such as cow urine, for COVID-19. In early February, a misleading video posted on Facebook claimed to show the ‘Chinese prime minister’ praying inside a mosque after the outbreak of a new strain of novel coronavirus in China.
A false claim that COVID-19 was discovered in chicken meat in Mumbai has been shared multiple times via Facebook and Twitter. A spurious audio clip that went viral on WhatsApp included several false claims made by a man that “59 people have been tested positive” in Nagpur, a city in western India.
The Indian government recently instructed a traditional drug company not to advertise a ‘breakthrough’ treatment, which was claimed by a well-known yoga guru to be a “100 per cent cure for COVID-19“. The herbal claim, publicised through social media platforms, has been fact-checked by Alt News India and found to be false.
India is not alone in this infodemic of mis- and disinformation. Unverified, misleading, false and made-up coronavirus stories are spreading around the world. When news and social media platforms published the US President Donald Trump’s dangerous musings about using disinfectant as a cure for the coronavirus, it was unequivocally denounced by medical experts.
At a time when the world is still awaiting a vaccine to prevent COVID-19, thousands of Indians have shared and watched a misleading video in which President Trump and his pharmaceutical executive announced that a vaccine was “ready” for distribution.
Fake news is not new — it proliferated during India’s 2019 election cycle. Now, images and videos about the pandemic are being manipulated to cause division and alarm among citizens. Spurious medical advice, biased posts against minority communities, unsubstantiated theories and rumours are being shared on social platforms in India.
These categories of fake news are just the tip of the iceberg. Researchers at the Bruno Kessler Foundation analysed 112 million public social media posts related to the pandemic and found that 40 per cent came from unreliable sources, while 42 per cent were circulated by bots.
Noting the proliferation of misinformation threatens people’s lives and livelihoods, the United Nations Development Programme has called on governments to work with big technology companies to minimise the circulation of fake news, while sponsoring large-scale fact-checking exercises.
In March, the Indian government set up a “MyGov Corona Helpdesk” chatbot on WhatsApp to provide coronavirus related information to its users. The bot, built by a private telecom giant, uses information provided by the Ministry of Health to provide citizens with accurate and verified information about COVID-19.
But in a counter-productive move that alarmed journalists, the Indian government also approached the Supreme Court to restrain news outlets from publishing any COVID-19 related news without clearance from the government on the grounds that “fake or inaccurate” reporting could cause panic in the country. The Supreme Court denied the government’s request.
To dilute the impact of fake news, a number of news media, philanthropic and government agencies have been funding fact-checking activities across the world, including in India. Duke Reporters’ Lab claims there are currently 237 fact-checkers operating in 78 countries.
Some of the Indian fact-checking organisations — including Boom, Fact Crescendo, NewsMobile Fact Checker, Newschecker.in, Newsmeter, TV Today Network Ltd. and The Quint — are signatories to the ‘Code of Principles’ advocated by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at the Poynter Institute in the United States.
The IFCN code of principles focuses on “nonpartisan, fairness and transparency in the fact-checking process”. The IFCN signatories also need to be transparent about their funding sources and provide details of all key personnel working for the organisation. Some of the international signatories include AFP Fact Checking from France, AP Fact Check and PolitiFact from the United States, RMIT ABC Fact Check from Australia and Tirdo.id from Indonesia.
Still, it is important to note that these fact-checking efforts are minuscule in comparison to the fake news and misinformation traffic created by those with vested interests.
Questions remain about the efficacy of fact-checking in combating the spread of fake news and misleading information online, particularly without the corrective steps taken by social media platforms. Facebook and Twitter have recently labelled Trump’s posts as”‘partly false” or “manipulated media”, while WhatsApp has reduced the number of connections a user can share information with on their platform.
COVID-19 has increased awareness about the scourge of fake news, particularly with enhanced fact-checking activities and their coverage in the mainstream media. It is hoped that increased levels of public discussion about fake news and its adverse impacts on society will create sufficient momentum to turn the tide on the thoughtless sharing of unverified information.
* Usha M Rodrigues is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Communication at Deakin University, Melbourne, and Adjunct Professor at Manipal University. This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.