The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (COVID-19), has been spreading across India and the world. However, there is something else spreading with a similar virality—fake news and misinformation. False data, miracle cures, conspiracy theories and religious discrimination have gained traction as they circulate on WhatsApp and Facebook.
Misinformation has been a significant issue in India over the past few years and has been written about by FNF earlier. A misinformed citizen is an uninformed citizen, and during a global pandemic, this can have serious knock-on negative impacts on all aspects of life. The Director-General of the World Health Organisation termed the spread of fake news around the coronavirus an ‘infodemic’.
The intent of this report is to categorize some of the false narratives surrounding the coronavirus pandemic in India. A study by the Reuters Institute at The University of Oxford, studied the major trends of fake news surrounding the virus and found that most of the misinformation involved various kinds of reconfigurations where ‘existing and often true information is spun, twisted, recontextualized, or reworked’. Interestingly, it was found that while misinformation by politicians, celebrities and other prominent people was less, it received the highest social media engagement. Most misinformation included misleading claims about the actions of public authorities and government or international bodies.
Origin and Causes
While there are many distinct narratives about the origin and causes of the outbreak of the virus, the two that prevail in India are, a) that the virus spread due to the proclivity of people in China to eat bats, and b) that the virus is bioengineered.
Two prominent fact-checking organisations in India, AltNews and BoomLive, have independently debunked claims that the virus was spread by eating bats. Such claims first surfaced on Reddit and other online discussion forums. Wuhan, where the virus was first identified is also the location of China’s highest biosecurity level virology lab in which some of the most dangerous pathogens are stored. This was then picked up by multipliers across the world, most notably a US Senator, The Washington Times and Indian politician, Manish Tewari.
China has since pushed back against the supposed politization of the pandemic and has sought to fight disinformation with even more disinformation, currently pushing the narrative that the virus is in fact a bio-warfare project of the US government. Russia has also seen an opportunity to engage in a disinformation campaign: the spiritual successor albeit a muted one to the Soviet-era Operation INFEKTION, which will be the subject of a future article. In India, apart from a few articles, the bioengineered narrative of the coronavirus has not reached the mainstream conversation. However, it has been termed the ‘China-virus’ and has contributed to an atmosphere of Sinophobia resulting in some instances of people from Northeast India facing incidents of racism and discrimination. This anti-China sentiment also found its way into the market economy as fears of China-made goods being infected with the virus started making rounds.
False narratives about preventing infection by the coronavirus have ranged from advisories against eating cabbage, promotion of drinking vegetable juice, claims that the hot weather of India will kill the virus, that Indians have a ‘natural genetic immunity’ and that vegetarianism protects against the virus. During the early days of the lockdown in India, the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH), put out a press release advising people to drink warm water and a herbal concoction called ‘kadha’ to increase immunity. This bit of information was reconfigured to advise gargling with warm water, vinegar and salt. The fact-checking service launched by the Press Information Bureau debunked this claim. Many other recommendations of herbal remedies put out by the government, politicians and mainstream media channels have been debunked by various fact-checking organizations. Fake narratives have also proved lethal as over 12 people were poisoned after consuming poisonous datura seeds that were peddled as a cure for the virus on TikTok.
The virality of the coronavirus has naturally worried people across the world and while scientists are working on a cure, it has not stopped state and non-state actors to share false information. A regional politician from the ruling party, claimed that cow dung and cow urine may be used in developing a cure as there is ‘something scientific about it’. Following from this, a Hindu group hosted a ‘party’ in which they drank cow urine in a bid to ward off the coronavirus. Over 200 people attended this event and it also prompted vendors to set up stalls selling cow dung and urine. The party and various Hindu groups have long claimed the benefits of these products. However, it has no impact on the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Modi announced a Janata (people’s) Curfew on 22 March, locking down the entire country for 14 hours except essential services. He also requested people to clap hands and ring bells in appreciation of people in essential services at 5 p.m. the same day. This prompted a wave of fake narratives, including that the government was planning to spray disinfectants across the country during the curfew. Many people including celebrities shared information on social media that clapping and ringing bells would generate vibrations that would kill the virus. Bollywood actor, Amitabh Bachchan, in a tweet, linked the curfew to astrology, calling it the darkest night of the month. Bachchan deleted his tweet after receiving criticism. In another such incident, tweets by actor Rajinikanth were deleted by Twitter for spreading misinformation. Another trending topic on the issue of the curfew was that a 14-hour curfew would kill the virus as it only has a lifespan of 12 hours. There was also a claim that the curfew would reduce the impact of the virus by over 40 per cent.
A similar rise in fake news was noticed after the request by the Prime Minister to all people in India to switch-off their lights at home and light candles, diyas, torches or mobile flashlights. The date, timing and duration of the request was seized upon by various people on social media, highlighting its numerological and astrological significance.
Spread and Impacts
The spread of the virus globally has also led to a rise in sectarian misinformation. The Islamic State (ISIS) has called it ‘divine retribution’ on non-believers and a punishment. An Indian preacher also echoed this sentiment, singling out China by stating the virus was retribution for the persecution of the Uyghur Muslims. Perhaps, the most vitriolic form of fake news surrounding the coronavirus is the rampant Islamophobic and sectarian misinformation about the spread and impacts of the virus. It all began once news broke that the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary group, had organized an international meeting at their Delhi headquarters. This meeting was then correlated with a distinct increase in the number of positive Covid-19 cases in the country. The event was termed a ‘super-spreader’ with over 1500 people in attendance. The term ‘Corona-jihad’ was coined rather quickly and was trending on social media. Senior leaders from the ruling BJP were quick to call it a terror plot saying it was a ‘talibani crime’. Most of the mainstream media also jumped on the narrative and hashtags like ‘CoronaTerrorism’ and ‘CoronaBombsTablighi’ trended on social media. This soon led to a series of discriminatory actions including a call by the leader of the Hindu Mahasabha to shoot Jamaat members ‘on-sight’. A BJP MLA called for a boycott of Muslim vegetable vendors. Vigilante groups identified Muslims vegetable and fruit-sellers and actively boycotted and in some cases even assaulted them. Fake and/or misrepresented videos and photos were shared on social media to further increase discrimination against Muslims.
This wave of Islamophobia did not spare even the most innocent of all people: two newborn babies died, as their mother, a Muslim woman, was refused entry and assaulted outside a hospital, accusing her of spreading the coronavirus. A cancer hospital in the country also put out a notice stating that they would not accept new Muslim patients until they provided proof that they have tested negative for Covid-19.
The sheer scale and nature of fake news has led fact-checking organizations in India to work overtime to combat these narratives. It is imperative that the creation of an informed citizenry requires us to engage in the ‘Battle of the Narrative’. The main steps in combating fake news is to, a) Read the story, not just the headline, b) Verify the story through credible sources, and c) Ask yourself about the purpose of the content. In case one is unable to separate fact from fiction, outlets like AltNews, BoomLive, AFPFactCheck, Factly and PIB FactCheck put out regular updates and bust fake news. Additionally, a coalition of Indian scientists created the Indian Scientists’ Response to Covid-19 to support evidence-based action against the virus. WhatsApp also has a list of fact-checkers available on their platform.