The global disturbance evoked by the novel coronavirus disease (covid-19) has led to a surge in the usage of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter and so on. The pace of fake news is much faster than the spread of coronavirus in India. Social media was galore with wild rumours, fake post, conspiracy theories, and fake videos about the disease origin, its subsequent spread and possible remedies. Facebook usage has increased as much as 50% in India against the most popular social handle twitter, the usage of which has gone as high as 40% between early- February and mid-May. The reliance on the social media platforms is likely to surge further, as the lockdown likely to continue in some form or the other.
Since the content of social media is jumbled up, everything seems to be the same useful content to the specter and become hard to distinguish between what needs to be taken seriously and what not. In India majority of the population is reliant on social media for information rather than newspaper. It has revolutionized the way people view and share the news. Social media platform has proliferate the diffusion of large volumes of misappropriate information on WhatsApp group that lacks authentication mechanism. This has further exacerbated the challenges around curbing misinformation. In April, 11 people in Andhra Pradesh found in semi-conscious state after they followed home remedy to curb coronavirus, they found on social media platform. Motivational quote ill-attributed on industrialist Ratan Tata can often have severe social mis-understanding. Similarly, misinformation about the specific groups of communities being the ones who are the victim of the virus complicated the collective fight against a rapidly spreading global pandemic. Growing menace of fake news, prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to flag the same in his recent address to the NAM summit.
B. Global menace
India is not an exception to the menace of spreading of fake news. The world is too suffering with the dissemination of the misinformation about the evolving pandemic. The news regarding the origin of the virus, threats and endangerment it possess, it further spread, has engulfed in every nation, although with varying intensity. In a study by the vaccine confidence project (VCP) researched more than 250 million social media message globally on covid-19 by mid- March to April. As per the data, there are 5 categories in which fake news on social media can be characterized- stuff about the causes, symptoms and its cures, spread of the virus, documents that are being published by the government department and its misrepresentation, malicious photos and videos of the politicians and so on. This was followed by people trolling fake videos about miracle cures, use of hot water and alcohol to develop immunity to virus. This has forced many countries to come up with appeal to counter such fake news, which even world health organization (WHO) being compelled to term it as “infodemic” and appealed people to be reliant on scientific and credible information.
Dr. tedros adhanom, director-general of world health organisation(WHO) said on the
menace of fake news:
“ we are not just fighting an epidemic; we are fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous as the ongoing novel pandemic”.
India fake news more lethal than global pattern on the crisis.
The plight of fake news is much more baneful in India because of the large inclination and reliance of its population on the social media platform and simultaneously lenient and sloppy regulation of social media platform. Large number of Indians with as much as 375 million are using all kinds of social media platforms, and are more susceptible to disinformation and fake news. Fake message and malicious videos are routinely surfaced on these platform such as Facebook, twitter, WhatsApp etc. that sometimes trigger communal tension on specific groups of communities. All these kind of tension reported as soon as India reported its first COVID-19 case on January 30, country’s social media saw a sudden upsurge in doctored videos, fake news, short movies, and range of issue related to pandemic.
Some of them were-
- A rumour of a lockdown has resulted in hoarding of essential commodities, thereby creating a situation of panic and shortfall of essential commodities.
- Other falsified claims that Muslim fruit seller spitting on fruits in order to spread corona virus. Muslim sneezing in unison to spread corona.
- Palghar incident being given the political wave, where it was maliciously claimed that the incident happened due to the hatred between Muslim and Hindu community, and Muslim beating the Hindu priest.
- A message with reference to WHO claiming that the UN agency has released a procedure and official protocol of lockdown periods to fight Covid-19. WHO claimed that the lockdown period is based on a research paper and the message is being falsely attributed to them.
- A media channel maliciously claiming that Tablighi Jammat members had declined food which have been provided to them in the quarantine centres and demanded biryani. This claim, was however being denied by the senior officials of police department.
- Even worse was the news which spread like wildfire claiming that consumption of non- vegetarian food could lead to the covid-19 infection. This misinformation has led to the massive loss of the poultry industry as major population stopped consuming the meat. This misfortune has also lead to the killing of chickens worth crore of rupees or in some cases set them free, by the poultry farmers. From a realible study, it has been estimated that poultry farmers has incurred a loss of Rs 2500 crore due to the fake rumours.
- More worryingly, a number of fake videos surfaced on the social media platform spreading misinformation like injecting COVID-19 positive blood to the Muslim youth, at the quarantine centres.
LEGAL PROVISIONS TO DEAL WITH FAKE NEWS:
At present India does not have specific rules and regulations to deal with the menace of fake news. However legal provision which can be invoked to deal with the current scenario are Information Technology Act, Indian Penal Code, Epidemic Disease Act, and Disaster Management Act.
- SECTION 66D OF THE INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY ACT:
Whoever, by means of any communication device or computer resource cheats by personation, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine which may extend to one lakh rupees.
- SECTION 54 OF THE DISASTER MANAGEMENT ACT, 2005:
Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic, shall on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.
- SECTION 505(1)(B) OF THE INDIAN PENAL CODE,1860:
This section of the penal code addresses a wider canvas and punishes those who with the with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility.
WHAT’S THE WAY FORWARD TO DEAL WITH THE SITUATION OF INFODEMIC.
To sum up, India is fighting with two viruses, one real and other being fake but equally lethal and dangerous to the community at large. Fake news and disinformation has created a major hurdles to the government at all levels, in their fight against the pandemic. Under IT Act, rules must be framed to take action against those who are responsible for the transmission of fake content. Moreover, the current Information Technology Act(2002) proving to be in-efficient to tackle fake content, the central and state governments have invoked relevant section of IPC and section 54 of Disaster Management Act. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had released a “charter of patient rights” which has given importance to the privacy of medical records of patients. After its release, the ministry has released the “Digital Information Security in Healthcare Act (DISHA)” draft which is intended to look at the data privacy and confidentiality of digital health data. Medical records and data would be “sensitive personal data” under personal data protection bill as it is defined under IT Act in April 2011, and such data cannot be circulated without the explicit permission of the provider.
Lastly, the academia, intelligentsia and media shall be the flagbearers of authentic news and ensure compliance of regulations especially during times of pandemic but equally during the wellbeing days. This would project the image of nation’s true intellectuals on the pedestal of responsibility and sensibility. Doesn’t that take us to the expectation of our fundamental duties as enshrined in the constitution?
– SIDDHARTH TRIPATHI
Symbiosis Law School