This report looks at articles published by Newschecker in eight different languages from December 2019 to October 2020. It highlights the pre-pandemic phase and spans well over the pandemic when India’s coronavirus case count reached nearly eighty-eight lakh. It also seeks to understand the behavioural aspect of mis/ disinformation in India as well as points to areas with further scope for research.
In total, 1974 articles related to politics, government, COVID-19, and other themes were published by us in the 11 months. This is not to suggest that we have fact-checked every misleading or false claim during this period, or every theme included. Checking every aspect of the vastly changing landscape of mis/ disinformation will require more resources than we currently possess.
Therefore, this report is an attempt to capture some of the viral and potentially harmful material we came across in the last 11 months—a period in which the world’s largest democracy witnessed a pandemic and infodemic intertwined with rising communal disharmony.
Just as in war, truth is the first casualty in a pandemic.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how conflicting, manipulated information, and misinformation can spread through social media paving the way for a potential public-health threat.
In our analysis, we found that coronavirus-related claims dominated the news cycle in March, around the time PM Narendra Modi announced India’s first lockdown. This was also the month when the World Health Organisation declared Coronavirus Disease-2019 a pandemic.
The impromptu lockdown announcement sent citizens on a frenzy – especially for impoverished labourers who, strapped off their livelihoods, had no means to seek shelter in the expensive cities where they’d migrated to for work.
In an attempt to fight the infodemic, Newschecker joined the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance led by the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute. We began debunking coronavirus-related claims in the last week of January 2020 with eight fact checks. This number increased to 58 in the fourth week of March—the most COVID-19 fact checks/ articles done in the accounted period.
The largest category of claims labelled as false or misleading, was content that challenged or questioned government authority as well as focused on the cure and spread of the virus. The “logic behind Janata Curfew” which equated the ‘life of coronavirus to 12 hours’ following PM Modi’s announcement of a Janata Curfew on 22 March was one among the viral claims we fact-checked.
Social Media’s Role In COVID-19 Misinformation
“Rumour can go twice around the world before the truth comes out,” is a reasonably apt expression in the social media era. Digital media has empowered the masses to make their voice heard. The upside of this dichotomy is weighed down by some contentious downsides. There are little to no checks when it comes to passing off opinions and fiction as facts.
In a way, freedom and access to digital media have placed ordinary citizens amid a free communication flow, says Dr Parama Sinha, an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
“Distrustful of mainstream news outlets, this ‘trustworthy’ information from alternative sources is further forwarded and shared without verification, with the belief that it promotes the ‘real story.’ This tendency makes India’s digital public space volatile and vulnerable to the dangers of misinformation and aids in the spread of panic and alarm during an evolving crisis like COVID-19,” Sinha writes in The Asia Dialogue.
A majority of the claims we debunked came from popular social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Sharechat, among others. We also found a small number of them directly from news channels/ websites that perpetrated misinformation.
In terms of the type of media, most claims we verified came in the form of images (523) and images with text (515). There were also a significant number of videos (450) shared with misleading and false claims related to coronavirus. This pool of claims also included a small number of links and audio.
Why Do People Share Misinformation?
Several things motivate people to share misinformation, often instantly, knowing there might be a chance that it’s not entirely true. This includes “a wish for status, trust in the person or ideology sending the misinformation,” says Professor Shakuntala Banaji, London School of Economics and Political Science. Sharing of misinformation was closely tied to beliefs about users’ own national and civic duty (including the notion of protecting a religious community), she adds.
Further, “older users often forward misinformation based on their respect for and trust in the sender, rather than on the content of the message, showing no critical understanding at all.”
As with any other, mis/ disinformation during this period was timed mainly with the ongoing news cycle. Starting with government and political claims related to CAA/NRC, JNU, Shaheen Bagh, the theme later shifted to coronavirus as the pandemic progressed. And gradually, the nature of claims changed to Muslims, religion, and caste more significantly. A study of Temporal Patterns in COVID-19 misinformation in India points to a similar shift.
An example of mis/ disinformation timed with the news cycle was seen in a multitude of false and misleading claims that circulated after actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death in June. Newschecker published around 21 fact checks debunking them.
The tone and direction misinformation spreads also reflects a society’s biases and prejudices. We saw examples of this around the Tablighi Jamaat event where related claims said that it was part of a bigger purpose to spread COVID-19 and gained credence because our society is divided. Newschecker debunked multiple claims related to this. But not before the wildfire of misinformation had sparked several ideological and religious battles online.
“In a country where the main means of communication – textbooks, newspapers, electronic media channels, messenger services – have all been flooded by propaganda and misinformation against particular communities over the past six years and more, the pattern of thinking and behaviour has already been set amongst large sections of the public to be hateful and discriminatory towards their fellow citizens from minority ethnic and religious backgrounds. Therefore, when a crisis such as COVID-19 provokes increased anxiety, the misinformation and disinformation made and circulated is often targeted at people and groups who have already been the ideological “other” in the preceding years (In the USA – East Asians, In India: Muslims). With a new “threat” (e.g. Infection, pandemic, economic failure) people are being directed by this misinformation to aim their hostility at the expected group who are already falsely blamed for other social problems,” expressed Banaji.
The Misinformation Honeytrap
Misinformation spreads through a gap in demand and supply of reliable information. Intuitively, during a crisis, demand for information increases significantly. And like with any demand it has to be met with supply. One such type of supply comes in the form of misinformation. When individuals or groups push out what they think is true, and with social media platforms today, this information gets propagated widely.
Thomas Abraham, journalist and professor at Hong Kong University, expressed, “the real issue here is, misinformation happens during an information vacuum when there is a vacuum of information, which means governments, medical experts, those who know what is going on, scientists are not providing enough information.”
This was clear early on in the pandemic when regular briefings were released, but this was mostly about what the government wanted people to know and portray a no-panic scene, Abraham adds.
But people’s lived experiences vs what they heard even in the media were different. There was an information gap in terms of what (information) people can trust and information coming their way. This is the space for other sources of information to fill the vacuum. Given we live in highly polarised times, this information is viewed through a prism.
From innate immunity of Indians to resist COVID-19 to the virus dying in India’s hot climate, Indians’ phones were flooded with a variety of misinformation related to cure and spread early in the pandemic.
Clearly, it was false since a warmer (at certain points) country like Singapore was one of the earliest places the virus spread. “There was enough evidence if you want to look for that. Once it started spreading in India, it was quite clear, it started spreading in slums, and among the poorest sections as well. So the whole thing of innate immunity and exposure to germs was nonsense. But people want to believe these things. And that, you know, somehow, we will escape this, because we are different from everybody else,” expressed Abraham.
We also noticed misinformation perpetrated by authoritative sources, including government personnel, experts, and media houses. In recent news for example, Kolkata Police filed an FIR against activist Madhu Kishwar for tweeting a video of an Islamic rally in Bangladesh, claiming it was held in Kolkata. Newschecker also published a fact check on an old video of French politicians protesting against Muslims praying on the street shared by Kishwar as a recent one.
In March, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Reddy claimed that “Paracetamol is the only medication for coronavirus.” While it can help with some symptoms, we now know, this claim is unscientific and in some cases, fatal.
In December 2019, opposition party members and a journalist shared a video falsely claiming that the Delhi police set buses on fire—the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt to divert attention ahead of elections.
While battling the pandemic, India found itself in a territorial dispute with China. Without surprise, misinformation surrounding this theme surged after the initial days of the dispute. Much of this came in the form of images and videos where the content was misplaced, misleading or false.
Abraham points to the already distressed relations between India and China for related misinformation. “A lot of people have seen flooding of Chinese goods, maybe they are business owners, or maybe, they have a general suspicion of China. And then you see somebody saying that you know, China did this, you say, yeah, it probably makes sense, right? And so you pass it on. And people are not in the habit of checking. And if they get shouted out, what they say is, I’m just forwarding it. Passing it on as received, right?”
Let’s note that this is happening at a time when science is inexact, and it cannot keep up with the flow of events. With a lot of data going around the world, it’s too much for science, which is a long patient process of observation, experiment, results, to cope—in turn, giving way for information vacuum to be filled with misinformation through sources like social media platforms.
Psychologically, no society was prepared, no human being was prepared for such uncertain times.
Misinformation isn’t a 21st-century invention. It’s been around for centuries before the internet. However, since technological limits placed natural restrictions on information outputs, misinformation by default trickled its way out into society in narrow drips. Now, with easy and constant access to information, the explosion of misinformation has been unparalleled. The fallacy of the Information Age we’re living in is the mis and disinformation we have to deal with.
“There is a welter of misinformation, disinformation and hate speech on WhatsApp and Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Tik Tok for which the platforms do bear serious responsibility – and fact-checkers can call each of the owners of the Platforms out loud and clear for breaches in their own policies on incitement and hate speech as well as misinformation,” asserted Banaji.
Authored by Nikita Vashisth. Data collection by Newschecker team.