Targeting everyone from doctors to healthcare workers, Armed Forces, minorities, politicians, government and private organisations, and even ordinary citizens, the spread of fake news has turned out to be a major cause for anxiety among the masses. While the proliferation of misinformation has been constant since the advent of the internet, COVID-19 has added fuel to its fire as those disseminating such content have found a fertile breeding ground in an atmosphere riddled with uncertainty.
Miscreants have been using the pandemic to further their agendas across verticals – from inciting unrest through posts about Tablighi Jamaat attendees to prompting attacks on healthcare workers on quarantine duty or even prompting thousands of migrants into overcrowding stations in hopes of express trains that would never come. A recent report revealed that of the 1,447 claims debunked by Indian fact-checking websites, 58 pc pertained to the coronavirus. The other close contenders in this infodemic spree include news items pertaining to the February 2020 Delhi riots, the Citizenship Amendment Act, and false claims concerning minority communities spread across India. The majority of the news items dealt with false cures for COVID-19, unsubstantiated theories on the origin of the virus and back to back rumours concerning the lockdowns and subsequent unlocking of the country.
And now, after India’s showdown with its neighbour China on the disputed LAC, a Pandora’s Box of fake news spilled onto cyberspace – with both Chinese and Pakistani portals ratcheting up the news count – on every possible area of interest. There’s a reason why the Indian market is ripe for the picking – vis-a-vis the super spreaders of fake news. Internet penetration in the country as per 2019 figures was over 600 mn users. The uber-popular instant messenger, which is now being referred to as ‘WhatsApp University’ owing to the quantum of ‘informed analysis’ that passes through its screens, has over 230 mn users in India, making India its largest market.
The problem of fake news was serious enough for the UN to take notice. By June end, India joined 132 nations to support a global initiative to stop the spread of fake news and misinformation in relation to COVID-19. The initiative called Verified urges people to take a moment to pause, before spreading any information on the internet – as the consequence of spreading unverified reports was all too visible during this pandemic. For instance, driving forth the stereotypes perpetuated by extremists, a news claimed eating vegetarian food while eliminating the consumption of meat could help bolster one’s immunity during the pandemic. As a result, by April this year, fake news concerning meat-eating played a major role in losses incurred by the country’s poultry industry – to the tune of a staggering Rs 130 bn.
Last October onward, Singapore employed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, to tackle the fake news infodemic. While India currently does not have a specific law pertaining to fake news, the National Disaster Management Authority in its lockdown order refers to Sec 54 of the Disaster Management Act 2005, which recommends prison time for those spreading false alarms. Earlier in May, the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD), which comes under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), unveiled a guide for law enforcement agencies to tackle fake news. Implementation of laws and directives aside, public accountability in intrinsic to managing the infodemic that we have on our hands now. It falls upon each citizen to be an active participant in dismantling the citadel of information warfare that has been built upon the foundation of mass gullibility. To put it simply – feel free not to share, unless you’re sure.