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Are Fake News and Misinformation Affecting India’s Fight Against Coronavirus? An Expert Explains

"Today, people like you and me may laugh off the 'theory' about banging plates creating vibrations that will destroy the virus, but there are people who actually believe it."
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, India
April 29, 2020, 3:04pm
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Photo for representational purpose only, by Anna ShvetsPexels

Your friends are getting it, your family is getting it, heck, even you’re getting it. Yes, those WhatsApp forwards that come with absurd “cures” or claims around the coronavirus pandemic. For me, they started with conspiracy theories around the virus (like it being a biological weapon straight out of China, a hoax sent to me by my father himself), before quickly turning into those peddling various traditional herbs being as cures to kill the coronavirus (much to the annoyance of the real medical and science communities across the world).

But most recently, this spate of misinformation and hoaxes took an even darker turn when a sudden spike in cases was attributed to a religious gathering of the orthodox Muslim sect, Tablighi Jamaat. It led to a steep rise of unsubstantiated WhatsApp forwards and conspiracy theories (many of which even made it to India’s national news segments), fuelling Islamophobia. And even as we ride the wave of the pandemic, the human cost of this stigma resulting from fake news and misinformation is already manifesting in violence, hate speech, business boycotts and other discriminatory actions.

VICE reached out to Pratik Sinha, the co-founder of one of the leading fact-checking websites, AltNews, which has been busting fake news and misinformation since 2017. Sinha has, in the past, spoken widely about how misinformation and hoaxes can have a huge impact on not just how people think, but also how they eventually act on it. Case in point is the series of violent mob lynchings that took place in 2018, which started from WhatsApp rumours. We asked the expert to break down how a simple WhatsApp forward can actually have more impact than you thought:

VICE: We’ve all got ridiculous WhatsApp messages or strange claims on social media, but are things worse amid the pandemic?
Pratik Sinha: The number of stories we have debunked during the pandemic has been unprecedented. The issue of misinformation has definitely increased. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has spoken out about it. And even though this is a global issue, the issue is a double whammy in India because there’s not just misinformation about the disease itself, but it also has communal misinformation, where particular communities are being targeted. Misinformation is being used not just to spread fear but also hatred.

You once said that there are two kinds of misinformation in India: political and medical. And that medical misinformation is more tough to spot than political. What’s happening now?
Political misinformation has a pattern. For instance, last month, we found a video of young Muslim men licking plates and spoons circulating on WhatsApp. This video, which is actually from two years ago, claimed that Muslim men are trying to spread coronavirus. When you take an old video and play it in the present context, you do it with a twisted narrative. But usually the text that goes along with such videos remains the same, and the same version is posted by thousands of accounts. This makes it easier for us to track them.

But medical misinformation is in general conversations. For example, people talk about ginger-garlic having a prophylactic effect, which will help prevent you from getting the coronavirus infection. Some of these forwards cite WHO or Johns Hopkins studies. These messages reflect people’s beliefs and enter conversations in your WhatsApp family groups, for instance, or with your parents at home. So it’s tough for us to track the pattern here. During the pandemic, things have gotten worse because the government itself is pushing medical misinformation. Like how some government figures claimed that homeopathic drug Arcenicum Album 30 will have a preventive effect against coronavirus, which is false. Recently, an AYUSH minister claimed that Prince Charles was cured of coronavirus because of Ayurveda. Again, false. So, yes, tracking medical misinformation is more challenging than the political because not only does it not have a pattern, but it also has the government's active role in it.

It’s scary now that many people are sitting at home, with unfortunately nothing much to do but consume all kinds of shit on their smartphones. What concerns you the most about this?
My work has surely increased! Seriously, though, the concern is the same as before [the pandemic] because the base issues remain the same. That is that, firstly, when it comes to political misinformation, there’s extreme polarisation in the society. Extreme biases can make you more susceptible to misinformation that adheres to your political beliefs and ideologies, and make it difficult for you to sympathise or empathise with other sections of the society. Secondly, when it comes to medical misinformation, there’s a lack of information literacy, especially in rural areas, which also don’t have internet literacy. People believe anything that comes on WhatsApp. It also gives a false sense of security to many. Today, people like you and me may laugh off the 'theory' about banging plates creating vibrations that will destroy the virus, but there are people who actually believe it.

Apart from WhatsApp, what other digital platforms have become a dangerous breeding ground for fake news and misinformation?
WhatsApp, of course, is problematic because misinformation can be shared on a large scale. Then there’s Twitter, which has done very little to tackle misinformation and doesn’t even have a team of fact-checkers. Facebook has fact-checkers but has honestly not done nearly enough. Unless you take down people who’re spreading misinformation and propaganda pages, and reduce their reach and increase the reach of more genuine news, the issue will persist.

TikTok is also a huge concern right now. For example, we recently saw a video of a man rubbing notes on his face and claiming the virus is a “curse from Allah'', and that it was an attempt to spread coronavirus. (The man from Nashik was arrested on April 3 for this TikTok video for making comments that hurt religious sentiments). Those videos may seem silly but what we see on TikTok is the impact of misinformation playing out. In those videos spanning half a minute or so, people act out the things they believe in, and that belief is structured by misinformation. And since these are individual posts, we can’t spot a pattern easily.

We are already seeing how damaging this misinformation is, with increasing reports of racist or Islamophobic abuse towards certain communities. Have you seen anything like this in India before?
Whenever I have interacted with fact-checkers in international conferences, I’ve realised that a scale of this kind [of misinformation] does not exist anywhere else but in India. No other country has misinformation weaponised the way it has here. Maybe the United States could compare, but even there, there’s more information literacy. In India, it’s also not just about the scale, but the impact too. In other countries, people don’t go out and lynch people based on misinformation.

Do you see digital platforms taking steps to effectively curb misinformation?
For one, WhatsApp has finally limited viral forwards to only one person, but for that, the system has to detect a viral forward, and there are limitations with that too. But I already see the impact personally; I myself have difficulty forwarding messages these days. The fact-checkers at Facebook, on the other hand, have very limited reach. The fact that AltNews, despite not having any partnership with big companies, continues to be the most read fact-checking website in India, means that people are not being fed enough fact-checks. Twitter might take down a tweet here or there because it consists of medical misinformation about the coronavirus, but beyond that, they have done very little to control hate and misinformation.

There have also been attempts by the government to force the Indian media to publish only “official” versions of coronavirus news. What does this media gag do at a time when there’s already so much misinformation?
Reporting has become what it is and it’s across mediums. There’s also a constant effort to push the government’s narrative, without independent fact-checking. We, at AltNews, are debunking this misinformation but a large majority of people are still out of our purview, and our capacity. During the pandemic, because of one-sided media and misinformation, we’re witnessing a community being boycotted. This is the worst thing to happen at a time like this. The problem is that the media never held the authorities accountable.

It’s also tough to reach out to an audience that consumes information in regional languages, or lives in rural pockets. What can be done in such cases?
At AltNews, our Hindi reach is increasing every passing month. We have also put our information under creative commons, for which there’s no charge. Just link back to us, or attribute. This should be a trend with other fact-checkers, too, because this information is extremely essential to society. Finally, I’d say that this cannot be limited to the journalistic realm, this has to be educational, too. Education comes under state subjects and there’s nothing that us private individuals can do about it. So, the real solution lies in education.

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.