Fake News, Real Arrests

Rampant misinformation has led to dozens of arrests in India, but leaders aren’t doing much to address the root of the problem.

Police officers punish restriction-violators during the coronavirus pandemic in India
Police officers punish restriction-violators during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus in Amritsar, India, on April 16. NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images

MUMBAI—Rumor travels faster than the coronavirus in India. False data has flown across social media, and fake remedies have abounded. Conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins, and about those responsible for its spread, have gained traction as they move across WhatsApp and Facebook. But rather than tackle the source of the problem, police have been carrying out rampant arrests—raising concerns over human rights and questions over the ability of local and national government to control misinformation.

In Mizoram, at least 15 people were arrested for sharing a fake circular telling locals outside the state to come home immediately. In Odisha, a man was arrested for posting to Facebook “fake news” about a supposedly infected person who arrived from out of state—information he said he received on WhatsApp. In Rajasthan, a health care worker was arrested for posting misleading data on the number of COVID-19 cases. Similar cases have appeared across the country. A recent tally by Agence France-Presse found that nearly 100 people had been arrested in India on charges related to spreading misinformation about the coronavirus. Though India does not have a “fake news” law, most cases have been registered under existing provisions such as the Indian Penal Code and the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. At least one state, Maharashtra, has passed orders specifically related to the coronavirus—mandating that any information on the virus must be approved by the government before dissemination.

The coronavirus crisis has hit the country hard, spreading rapidly and ravaging the economy. India now has over 13,800 confirmed cases with 452 deaths, though given the relatively low rate of testing, the real figure is likely to be far higher. On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week lockdown as a means of slowing the pandemic. The order is among the strictest in the world, covering some 1.3 billion people who are not allowed to step foot outside their homes except to get food and medicine. On April 14, Modi extended the lockdown for another 19 days. With little focus on combating misinformation, erratic and unclear communication from the government allowing rumors to flourish, and rising strain on the population, the number of arrests might be expected to grow.

“Extraordinary times absolutely call for extraordinary measures, but those measures should be positive investments in independent and credible information, not steps that will do little or nothing to stop misinformation while doing great collateral damage to fundamental rights,” said Rasmus Nielsen, the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, who has worked extensively on disinformation.

India has 451 million monthly active internet users, according to a 2019 report, and 400 million WhatsApp users, making it the company’s largest market. WhatsApp has been one of the key platforms for spreading disinformation in India—to such a degree that the company in 2018 limited how many times a message can be forwarded after a spate of mob killings driven by rumors spread on the platform.

As in other countries, the spread of fake news has long been a concern in India—the rumormongering around COVID-19 is simply following prevailing patterns.

“It is part of a larger ecosystem, it’s not like it is suddenly happening now,” said Thomas Abraham, a journalist and honorary associate professor at Hong Kong University, whose research work has focused on risk communication during epidemics. “You stop one person, someone else will start doing it. If you have a culture of doing it, it will continue.”

In India, this culture has been aided by politicians and influential public figures peddling bogus information. In recent weeks, some leaders advised using cow urine and cow dung to combat the virus. On WhatsApp, netizens have been forwarding messages ranging from the dubious to the dangerous—including advice on gargling with various liquids and avoiding meat, and the claim that the prime minister’s recent appeal to Indians to applaud health care workers in unison “will create so much vibrations that virus will lose all potency.” Perhaps most worryingly, online conspiracy theories claiming Muslims are responsible for the spread of the virus have led to violence.

Though some of these messages are patently nonsense, the question of how to clearly distinguish real news, opinion, misinformation, and deliberate fakes is a tough one. In the absence of a clear definition of “fake news,” allowing law enforcement authorities to exercise their discretion allows arrests to be driven by politics or police whim.

“When you start arresting people what happens is you pick up random people, they haven’t necessarily started those forwards. In the age of social media you may never find out who posted it,” said Pratik Sinha, the founder and editor of Alt News, a fact-checking site. “So, you will pick on two or three people but a popular forward gets sent thousands of times, are you going to fill jails with thousands of people? No, you pick on a few and put them in jail. Very often you find there is a political slant to it, because you pick up people from opposing parties.”

And there is little to suggest arrests work as a deterrent. “China has been extraordinarily draconian in restricting citizens’ communication and cracking down on voices, and yet there is plenty of misinformation in circulation,” Nielsen pointed out.

It is imperative for authorities to instead begin combating bad information with good information and curtail the room for speculation. “What public authorities can do is to make sure that they are communicating effectively, and they are not leaving a vacuum,” Abraham said. “Are they getting through to people? If they are, then the problem of fake news disappears.”

But as long as the government benefits from the rapid spread of false information, there is little likelihood of pivoting. “Every single month we have a plethora of political misinformation,” Sinha said. “And why do people fall for it? Because they are not taught to think critically toward the information they receive. That is what we as a country need to work on, to think more critically and build more scientific temper, but we are going exactly in the opposite direction.”

Bhavya Dore is an Indian journalist based in Mumbai.

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