Spreading Confusion: Social Media and COVID -19

Abstract

This essay is written with an aim to highlight the importance of information that is disseminated through mass media channels like news broadcasters and social media platforms. Since they enjoy mass viewership and round the clock forwards, they have a higher responsibility to check any and every information that is circulated through their channel. The main objective behind this essay is to highlight the severe consequences of the casual approach adopted by a few platforms due to which Indian is suffering and the negative effect of which is on the efforts made by organisations such as WHO, UNDP etc. Psychologically, not only does such disinformation succeed in convincing people to believe in it but also leads to a lack of faith in the actions of the government leading to adverse effects. The essay also highlights various statutes which regulate the spread of fake information through intermediaries and the punishment prescribed for indulgence in such crimes.

Introduction

A lie, when stated with an authority and with full conviction becomes more powerful than truth. In terms of reliability and acceptance of information, the trust of people has shifted from traditional to internet/ social media platforms. Given the availability of multilingual and multimedia technological platforms, fake information travels fast and embeds itself in the minds of the ‘digitally illiterate.’ The importance of addressing the issue was so much so that Collins Dictionary announced “fake News” as its “word of the year” in 2017.[1]It is known that mental health can be severely affected due to panic which is often created due to fake news. Media is the only essential vehicle of political discourse so chief to democracy. News broadcasters and Social media platforms are the intermediaries[2] through which truth reaches the ears of a common man. In the times of emergencies and public disturbances like a disease, these intermediaries are the only official disseminators of the government voices, thereby increasing the need of authenticity in the information disseminated by them. Their role is to become a watchdog of the government and to educate people about the issues that affect their lives. The spread of Covid-19 has definitely been fuelled by the fake news circulated through WhatsApp groups and news channels to name a few.


Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian constitution[3], confers upon its citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression which includes the right to access information.[4] However, the article does not immune citizens to spread any and every unverified information according to their whims and wishes. Freedom of press was not specifically mentioned under 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, however, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar recognised it to be an integral part of the section in the constitutional Assembly Debate.[5] In this age of “infodemic” which the World Health Organization defines as – “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it[6], fake news has higher acceptance chances than genuine news. The internet is full of “remedies and precautions” to be taken during the times of Covid-19. While most of these forwards seem harmless, they can cause detrimental effects on the heath of an individual if they ignore authentic medical advices thinking that these remedies will keep them safe. The press and the social media sites have no special rights than what an ordinary citizen enjoys and are also subject to reasonable restrictions under Article 19 (2) of the Indian Constitution. [7]


The psychology of disinformation

According to multiple reports, people in the UK are burning 5G network masts/towers as a conspiracy theory is doing the rounds on the internet that it helps with the spread of Covid-19.[8] A similar situation was seen in Indian wherein fake news was spread about “chicken as a carrier of corona virus”. According to the All India Poultry Breeders’ Association, the news cost the poultry industry heavy losses of Rs 1.6 billion per day.[9] The mist of delusion that such fake news creates could not be removed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in spite of issuing an clarification to the public leading to a havoc in the lives of chicken breeders. This intentionally fabricated content has a higher tendency to go viral creating a ‘ring of truthfulness’ in our minds, leading us to believe that this repetitive information is true regardless of us knowing that it is not. This happens because panic leads to lack of faith in the ruling government followed by a tendency to fracture the laid rules. A similar psychological effect has been witnessed due to the spread of fake news about the extension of lockdown declared in India leading to huge migrant labourer movement towards their villages.[10] Not only has a situation of panic in the minds of people been created, but it has also led to mass hoarding of essential commodities like hand sanitisers and N95 masks. The outcome is that the poor and marginalised sections are now not only prone to Covid-19, but are unhandy of means of survival. Such fake information also destroys the efforts of various national and international agencies like Kerala Police, United Nations Development Programme, World Health Organisation and many more, who are uploading awareness videos on TikTok and YouTube to educate people about the right things to do during this time.[11]

An act leading to punishment

The Ministry of Information and Technology made efforts to deprecate the stretch of such unverified information through an advisory issued to all social media platforms which are now channels for the spread of information regarding Covid-19. The report mentioned Section 79 (3) (b)[12] of the Information and Technology Act which states that social media platforms are required to follow due diligence by removing or disabling access to any information that can be used unlawfully. In spite of the efforts made by the government to stop disinformation, these bans and restrictions can simply be bypassed through Virtual Private Network and mirroring sites. The government action followed a report submitted by open-source intelligence and fact-checking IT firm Voyager Infosec claiming that TikTok, a Chinese origin video-sharing app, is being used as a primary medium to peddle fake information regarding coronavirus. The report pointed to bulk videos on social media platforms inciting Indian Muslims against following safe practices to stem the viral pandemic.[13] Such fake information disseminators shall be liable to punishment of a term which may extend to three years with fine under Section 66A of the IT Act.[14]

Liability under section 54[15] of the Disaster Management Act will also arise for the people who are “making or circulating false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic.” Similarly, the provisions of section 505[16] of Indian Penal Code also apply for statements which incite a class or community commit offences against other communities as has been witnessed by the widespread hatred towards the Muslim community in India. Three people in Hyderabad were recently arrested by the police for spreading false news about a man’s death due to coronavirus via. WhatsApp, which led to great panic in the village where the man belonged to.[17]

Conclusion: An ending remark

Social media gives great opportunity to the government to make citizen centric polices. It potentially gives “voice to all” through its round the clock coverage and creates a link between the government and its stakeholders. These platforms exercise their right of freedom to speech and expression which includes the right to circulate information which is a necessary part of the same. News broadcasters and social media platforms enjoy the same rights like an ordinary Indian citizen. Unfortunately, these rights which every citizen enjoys often overshadow the duties which every individual is bound to follow. However, sometimes it becomes important for these channels, upon whom great responsibility has been conferred to verify the information which reaches the public through their platforms. Especially in times as disturbing as these, where the whole world is witnessing hardships due to novel Covid-19, these channels are expected to keep aside the “TRP” and “viewership” games and work for the national cause. Fake news is a wakeup call for all digital platforms to be more relevant, transparent and add value to the lives of people It must be applauded how some platforms such as Whatsapp have launched a 'Coronavirus Information Hub' in partnership with International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), World Health Organization (WHO). United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are also some platforms which are doing their part in spreading awareness and encouraging people to avoid circulation of false content.[18] If such initiatives are subdued by the paid and voluntarily promoted rumours online, then even if people “stay home”, they will never “stay safe”.


Footnotes [1] Julia Hunt, ‘Fake news' named Collins Dictionary's official Word of the Year for 2017, ( Apr. 10 5:00 AM)https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/fake-news-word-of-the-year-2017-collins-dictionary-donald-trump-kellyanne-conway-antifa-corbynmania-a8032751.html. [2] Information and Technology Act, 2000, §2 (1) (w), No. 21, Acts of Parliament, 2000 (India). [3] Indian Const, art 19 (1) (a). [4]Legal Junction, The legality and the Reality- Role of Media and the Right to Information, (Apr. 9 7:00 AM), https://www.legallyindia.com/views/entry/the-legality-and-the-reality-role-of-media-and-the-right-to-information. [5] Constituent Assembly of India, volume no. VII, 2nd December 1984. [6] World Health Organisation, Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), (Apr.9 7:10 AM), https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200202-sitrep-13-ncov-v3.pdf?sfvrsn=195f4010_6. [7] Indian Const, art 19 (2). [8] Tom Warren, British 5G towers are being set on fire because of Coronavirus conspiracy theories, (Apr. 11 8:12 AM), https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/4/21207927/5g-towers-burning-uk-coronavirus-conspiracy-theory-link. [9]Omkar Khandekar, How WhatsApp forwards on Coronavirus broke the ₹1 tn Indian Poultry Industry, (Apr. 7 4:00 PM),https://www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/features/how-whatsapp-forwards-on-coronavirus-broke-the-1-7-bn-indian-poultry-industry-11584715653782.html. [10] Alakh Alok Srivastava v. Union of India, writ petition on behalf of labourers, No. 468/2020, SCC. [11] Shreyashi Roy, On TikTok some spread Covid-19 Fake News, Others fight it, (Apr. 4 2:00 PM), https://www.thequint.com/news/webqoof/these-tiktok-handles-are-fighting-outbreak-of-covid-19-fake-news. [12] Information and Technology Act, 2000, § 79 (3) (b), No. 21, Acts of Parliament, 2000 (India). [13] Surabhi Agarwal, Remove videos spreading Covid-19lies: Govt to Social Media Platforms, (Apr. 4 3:40 PM), https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/internet/remove-videos-spreading-covid-lies-govt-to-cos/articleshow/75016940.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst. [14] Information and Technology Act,2000, No. 21, Acts of Parliament, 2000 (India). [15] Disaster Management Act, 2005, § 54, No.53, Acts of Parliament, 2005 (India). [16] Indian Penal Code, 1860, § 505, No. 45, Acts of Parliament, 1860 (India). [17] TNN, Three held for spreading Fake News, (Apr. 11 9:00 AM), https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/hyderabad/three-held-for-spreading-fake-news/articleshow/74663972.cms. [18] ET Contributors, View: Disinformation in times of Pandemic, and the laws around it, (Apr. 7 4:00 PM), https://m.economictimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/view-disinformation-in-times-of-a-pandemic-and-the-laws-around-it/articleshow/74960629.cms.

Submitted by,

Mehar Kaur Arora,

Gujarat National Law University.


(Image used for representational purpose only.)

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