• Pranjal Vyas

Analysis of Fake News

Updated: Jan 11



This article is written by Pranjal Vyas

APRIL 2020, WhatsApp groups were abuzz with a video of dead bodies washed ashore on an unidentified beach being shared claimimg that some countries are throwing away dead persons infected with COVID-19 into the sea. Factcheck has found out that a boat carrying the African immigrants to Europe capsized en route near a beach in Bolivia in 2014. So the incident happened nearly six years ago and the dead bodies shown in the video has nothing to do with the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Another widely circulated image which shows people scattered and fallen on the road claiming “Corona has gripped Italy to such extent that there is no one to even remove corpses.” In fact it does not shows dead people at all. The photo was taken on March 24, 2015 in Frankfurt, Germany. People lay down on a pedestrian area to remember victims who lost their lives in a Nazi concentration camp. The tribute was part of an art project.

The examples can be endless as dissemination of misinformation. In this article, I tried to understand what fake news is and how it is different from other forms of misinformation.

What is Fake News?

Fake News, also known as junk news, pseudo news, alternative facts or hoax news, is a form of news consisting of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media or online social media. The topic of fake news is as old as the news industry itself—misinformation, hoaxes, propaganda, and satire have long been in existence.

Before beginning let’s recall that under the constitutional scheme, all speech is free other than that which the government restricts under the heads of Article 19(2). While Article 19(1)(a) guarantees citizens the freedom of speech, Article 19(2) allows for “reasonable restrictions” in the interests of inter alia: (a) sovereignty/integrity of India;(b)the security of the state; (c)public order; (d)decency or morality; (e) defamation; or (f)incitement to an offence.

As we can see, speech in India can be restricted because of the speech’s content- that the meaning conveyed is deemed legally objectionable. The State evidently has an interest in restricting speech that directly leads to violence. However, in the case of obscenity laws or defamation, speech is restricted because of value judgements by the State. Obscene speech does not lead to violence, but the State believes that it leads to an erosion of public morality.

Circulation of Fake news in India

India has become a home for extensive spread of false news. A variety of sources for news exist and most widely used are radio, newspapers, television, word of mouth and Social media platforms which causes misleading of information. Just Whatsapp has its maximum users from India over 340 million. Then there are other social media platforms also like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc which are most vulnerable to fake news. The old Images were posted claiming it to recent ones as you saw in above examples. Another just happened, the controversial boislocker room case in which the screenshots of objectionable comments about girls became viral and received hatred all over the social media. Later, it was found that a girl had made a fake Snapchat account in the name of boy to test the qualities and character of her other male friends.

This sparks communal pressures, instances of animosity and even hatred among people.

India’s battle against fake news has got fiercer with time, with the government pressuring tech companies for more content regulation, and tech companies attempting to clean up one mess after another. This is why we saw WhatsApp limit forwarded messages to five, and Facebook struggle to build an unbiased Artificial Intelligence system to detect and block fake news[it still hasn’t succeeded fully]. Recently the Indian government has launched a chatbot on WhatsApp to address user queries and quell rumours on the coronavirus pandemic.

Fake News Damages: Popular Examples from India

· Muzzafarnagar riots of 2013: fake video fuelled communal passions.

· UNESCO has declared “Jana Gana Mana” best national anthem in the world [WhatsApp]

· Dawood properties worth Rs 15000 Cr seized in Dubai [Zee News, ABP]

· President Kovind makes Twitter debut; gains 3 million followers in one hour [Republic, Zee news, TOI etc.]

· Dying Woman Molested, Video shows [The Hindu]

· Fatwa in Saudi Arabia; Men can eat wives when hungry [Aaj Tak]

· Child Kidnapping rumours lead to lynchings by a mob in Jharkhand.

· Salt Shortage rumours [Nov 2016]

· GPS tracking nanochip in 2000 Rupee notes [Nov 2016]

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic;

we’re fighting an infodemic”

- World Health Organisation

As the coronavirus spreads, so does an infodemic of misinformation. Social media now threatens to throw a monkey wrench into the works. Since the outbreak of Covid- 19, healthcare has replaced politics as the happy hunting ground for purveyors of fake news on social media. The fakery takes avatars like purported health advisories, home remedies to ward off coronavirus, miracle cures by babas, conspiracy theories, unscientific claims of virus transmission to downright pedding of xenophobia.

With fake news about coronavirus going viral faster than the disease itself, citizens deriving their information from social media rather trusted sources such as this newspaper or an official WHO website is a dangerously worrying prospect. Social media can create panic about the disease which is unwarranted Or, at the other end of the spectrum, it can give rise to a dangerously complacency – such as in the widespread WhatsApp forward that holding a hair dryer close to one’s throat will destroy the coronavirus lodged in it. Such misinformation could literally kill people.

Analysis also found that misinformation targeting Muslims spiked in the first week of April. This was after the controversy on the account of Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement around mid-March in Delhi’s Nizamuddin prompting a colossal spike in positive cases across various places of India, various false recordings started spreading over WhatsApp and other platforms on social media claims about Muslims deliberately spreading the virus.

In several parts of the country, there were calls for an economic boycott of Muslim businesses. In the capital Delhi, the Minorities Commission, which works to safeguard the rights of minority communities, formally notified the police of the need to act against people stopping Muslims from entering residential areas or carrying on with their business.

False claims were also widely spread in India that eating vegetarian food and eliminating meat from your diet could prevent you getting coronavirus. These false WhatsApp messages and social media posts had an impact on both Muslim and non-Muslim groups industry.

The meat industry was not the only victim of fake news.

Poultry is one of the main forms of meat consumed in India. The fall in sales in the poultry industry had a major knock-on effect on the sale of eggs and of maize – which goes into much of the feed for chickens.

Are there any laws to tackle fake news in India?

The answer is no. There is no specific law against fake news in India. Free publication of news flows from Article 19 of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech. However, there are certain legal resources available for people affected by fake news.

· Press Council of India, a regulatory body, can warn, admonish or censure the newspaper, the news agency, the editor or the journalist or disapprove the conduct of the editor or the journalist if it finds that a newspaper or a news agency has violated journalistic ethics.

· News Broadcasters Association (NBA)represents the private television news and current affairs broadcasters. The self-regulatory body probes complaints against electronic media.

· Indian Broadcast Foundation (IBF) also looks into the complaints against contents aired by channels.

· Broadcasting Content Complaint Counciol (BCCC) admits complaints against TV broadcasters for objectionable TV content and fake news.

· Indian Penal Code (IPC)has certain sections which could curb fake news: Sections 153 (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot) and 295 (injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class) can be invoked to guard against fake news.

· Section 66 in The Information Technology Act, 2000: If any person, dishonestly or fraudulently, does any act referred to in section 43 (damage to computer, computer system), he shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to five lakh rupees or with both.

· Civil or Criminal Case for Defamation is another resort against fake for individuals and groups hurt by the fake news. IPC Section 499 (defamation) and 500 (whoever defames another shall be punished with simple imprisonments for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both) provide for a defamation suit.

Conclusion:

Controlling fake news is a tricky issue; not controlling trolls could lead to national and international instability while doing too much to control it could harm democracy. The government must take the initiative to make all sections of the population aware of the realities of this information war and evolve a consensus to fight this war. It must also take strict action against the fake news providers. Italy, for example, has experimentally added “recognizing fake news” in school syllabus.

Also Government should have independent agency and make strict regulations: to verify the data being circulated in social and other media. The agency should be tasked with presenting real facts and figures. Like Singapore’s parliament passed a new act to regulate the spread of fake news in Singapore which is POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act).

Ordinary consumers of news can also play a big role by, first, waking up to the reality that all they read on WhatsApp and Twitter is not thegospel truth, and then, by refusing on what they cannot independently verify with other sources.

Social media websites should be made accountable of such activities so that it becomes their responsibility to have better control over the spread of fake news.

Both government and media have to combat the fake news menace collectively.

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