Fake News amid COVID-19 and its Distinct Impacts: Indian Perspective
Sandeep Singh Chauhan, Student, National Law University, Odisha
"We are not just fighting an epidemic; we are fighting an infodemic”
This statement was made by the World Health Organization [hereinafter WHO] Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as he refers ‘infodemic’ to fake news in the context of novel COVID-19. He is correct as on one side the whole world fighting against COVID-19. On the other side, the social media not only in India but across the world is witnessing unprecedented fake news related to the virus. The fake news and misinformation are contributing to paranoia and making this battle against the deadly virus, even more robust. In this pandemic situation, social media is playing an essential role in spreading the same.
The people are sharing information without looking at its authenticity through popular messaging and content applications like YouTube, WhatsApp, and TikTok. For instance, one YouTube video promotes drinking cow urine [gaumutra] to fend off the virus. Besides, one tweet claimed that India had developed the first-ever coronavirus mattress. Thus, the boundless spread of unverified messages and videos in the online system has made the media, government, and public to come together to fight the problem of mis-infodemics, amid fighting the pandemic.
The article focuses on the impact of fake news on consumer’s psychology as well as their religions. Further, the present legal regime is not only inefficient to control it but also affecting the free speech of the citizens. Besides, the preventive steps were taken by the government along with social media platforms and finally, conclude with suggestive measures to curb it.
Impact of Fake News on Psychology of Consumers
The fake news spreads much faster than real news and affects the psychology of consumers because it designs in such a manner that connects directly to emotions and grabs the attention. According to the psychologist, the decision of people influences by social norms, and they perceive what other approves or rejects. The ‘informational influence’ takes place when people use others' behaviour as input for interpretations and responses to their situation. The influence is getting more potent when the people are wholly uncertain, and output is essential as in the present pandemic situation. This uncertainty makes the mind anxious and cooks up its remedies to accept the most irrational or illogical facts. The recent instance can explain it as the sale of antibiotics has increased enormously due to prescription or self-medication, irrespective it does not have any effect against COVID-19.
The disinformation has affected at such a level that when accurate information comes, it ends up with only a marginal impact on the consumer. The reason for the same is that fake news is such sort of breathtaking nature and shock value which grab the mind of people. For instance, if people believe that taking warm water every 15 minutes can prevent the virus, then they may stop taking preventive measures by the authentic sources like WHO, which aimed at reducing the spread of the virus. Further, if it is believed that the virus is just a hoax, then it leads people to take minimal measures against it, and sharing such belief does not only expose them to the virus but also has a high probability of death.
Fake News fuels discrimination between religions
The fake news not only affects the psychology of people but also germinates the seed of hate between the religions. There is a change in the flavour of fake news after the ‘Tablighi Jammat’ incident took place in the capital on 30th March 2020. It focuses on the particular community that has targeted as the primary source of the virus throughout the country. Further different hashtags are trended on social media platforms such as Islamophobic, CoronaJihad, and NizamuddinIdiots. For instance, there is one video that shows that Muslim men are intentionally coughing at people to spread the virus. Meanwhile, the sources of such video investigate, and it comes to know that it was filmed in Thailand, and there is no proof that men in the video have any link to the Delhi congregation.
Furthermore, the other woebegone incident relates to a hospital in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, where rumours come that Hindu and Muslim patients are separated from each other in different wards. After some days, the surgeon of the hospital cleared that he was misquoted by social media platforms that Hindu and Muslim are separated in different wards. However, actually, the patients are separated based on age and conditions.
Additionally, the chief of All India Majlis-e-Mushawarat (Apex confederation of Muslim Organizations) alleged that almost 30,000 fake videos are in circulation on TikTok, which shows that Muslims are spreading the virus throughout the country. Besides, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind moves to the Supreme Court for seeking directions from the court to prevent the dissemination of such news and take firm action against those responsible for it. The plea also states that the entire community has led to severe ‘threat to life and liberty’ and thus a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution.
The issue is so warm that the Prime Minister had also tweeted as ‘COVID-19 does not see any religion, race, colour, languages before striking. We should maintain the primacy of unity and brotherhood’. The reason why these types of misinformation duly accepted is that there is already a right amount of polarization in the society between Hindu and Muslim. Nevertheless, the present scenario demands that the citizens should come together and fight the battle with unity and curb the spread of hate-mongering.
Legal Regime is inefficient as well as affect free speech
In the present legal regime, there is no specific law to deal with the fake news. However, we still have some existing legal provisions as Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. In this pandemic situation, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has issued an advisory to all social media platforms to curb the misinformation related to COVID-19.The social media platforms are recognized as intermediaries under Section 2(1) (w) of the Information Technology Act, 2000. They required to follow due diligence as prescribed in the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules 2011 under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, as per the advisory of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
In the Information Technology Act (hereinafter ITA), 2008, and the rule codified in 2011 on the liability of the intermediaries, under Section 2(1)(w) of the Act, does not arise if they have not initiated, select a receiver, and modify the information in the transmission through their platform.The intermediaries have to follow the due diligence while discharging duty and also have to observe the guidelines prescribed by the central government.
The government recently directs these intermediaries to remove or censor the content which affects the public tranquillity. This move of the government has been appreciated but on the other side of the government starts misusing it by directing the intermediaries to prohibit the content which does not provide any benefit to them. Thus, such a measure would have a detrimental effect on free speech.
The other problem is related to inefficiency, as per Section 54 of Disaster Management Act (hereinafter DMA) ‘whoever circulates the false alarm related ‘to disaster’ shall be convicted with imprisonment which may extend to one year or fine’. This section has a very narrow approach towards fake news as it specifically related to disaster only, but in today’s scenario, the definition of fake news has a broad interpretation. For instance, if any fake news formed in such a manner that it does not directly relate to disaster but a reasonable person can infer that it has an impact due to disaster, then it still covers under the section or not, an unresolved question.
The government has also invoked Section 505(1) (b) of the Indian Penal Code (hereinafter IPC) coupled with Section 54 of the DMA to curb the fake news related to COVID-19. Section 505(1) (b) of IPC states that ‘whoever circulates or publishes any rumours with an intent to cause fear or alarm public, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to 3 years or fine or both’. The main issue with this section is to prove the evil intention of the person who propagates the fake news as for criminal liability it is mandatory. In fake news, it would not be easy to prove as unknown sources share it and to find out its genesis it required reverse engineering which is very difficult as well as may be inefficient in some cases. These are the legal provisions which are affecting free speech and lacking in efficiency to curb the misinformation related to COVID-19.
Government's steps with social media to curb 'misinformation'
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, along with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, has launched a chatbot ‘MyGov Corona Helpdesk’ on WhatsApp to quench rumours and address the queries related to the pandemic. It is an excellent medium to provide some necessary hygiene information and to curb the fake news as a user base of WhatsApp in India crosses almost 400 million. Further, it also allows users to go to the Facebook page on ‘MyGov Corona Hub’ and then start a chat by merely text ‘Get Started’ and raise the queries.
Furthermore, the government has also joined the hands with Google India. Google has made changes in India’s search page with the ‘DO THE FIVE. Help stop coronavirus’ campaign. The search page has linked with the page of the health ministry, which helps them to highlight the number of cases along with relevant information. Besides, Google also sends out the push notification to IOS as well as Android, highlights foremost information about COVID-19. The government takes the other initiatives in terms of SOS alert, promo card on the YouTube homepage, which links to the Ministry of Health and Family welfare website for the latest information.
Conclusion with Suggestions
The fake news related to COVID-19 has affected the people in different aspects from psychologically to free speech. Meanwhile, there are some suggestions which would help to curb the menace of fake news. Firstly, there is a need for strict law enforcement as the present provisions are still not matching the pace at which people are spreading fake news. Besides, it should be in harmony with the freedom of speech.
Secondly, there should be a constant awareness drive through messaging, videos, and other attractive methods. Further, the social media platforms should elevate the official ministry guidelines or WHO guidelines related to COVID-19 on the front of their search engines. Besides, they should also distinguish the official pages from fake ones by issuing blue verification ticks like Twitter already done in the United Kingdom to verify over 800 National Health Services accounts.
Furthermore, whenever any person reads any news related to the virus, they should ask themselves a question whether the quoted sources have a conflict of interest in any way from what they are saying. Applying the above lens to anything before reading or sharing helps an individual to discern what sources are trustworthy. Thus, in this pandemic situation, it is not only the government's duty to curb it, but every individual should take the responsibility to do the same. The fight against COVID-19 and ‘infodemic’ could only be won when the whole nation stands with unity and brotherhood.
 Ministry of Electronics and Informational Technology, ‘Advisory to curb false news/ misinformation on corona virus’<https://meity.gov.in/writereaddata/files/advisory_to_curb_false_news-misinformation_on_corona_virus.pdf> accessed 14th May 2020  The Information Technology Act 2000, s 79(2) (b)  The Information Technology Act 2000, s 79(2) (c)