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FAKE NEWS IN THE TIMES OF COVID-19: A Legal Perspective

The Union Government has launched COVID-19 FOOD EMERGENCY. Evoking Article 420 of the Constitution of India, the government has ordered all the groceries, restaurants, hotels, fast food outlets, vegetable markets and neighbourhood shop to be closed for an indefinite period.

Introduction

How many of us have received such messages? Most of us, if not all, have been bothered by these flyers of information via multiple social media and messaging platforms like Whatsapp, Instagram, Telegram etc, at one time or the other.  Written rather professionally, in a manner that seems extremely informative and is easy to decipher for the common man, these messages transmit a pandemic, that is equal, if not more dangerous than the Coronavirus pandemic; the [Fake News] virus.
 
According to Cambridge Dictionary[1], [Fake News] is defined as “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke”. In layman terms, [Fake News] refers to the news that is untrue or phoney in nature. This acts as an umbrella term for all unverified, fabricated, rumour based articles, reports, Instagram posts, tweets, Whatsapp messages, circulating all through the internet, that creates nothing, but panic and a state of confusion in the society.
In order to understand the sources of [Fake News], it is important to understand what constitutes news and what does not. For instance, the sources of news include, print media like newspapers, magazines, newsletters etc. and electronic media, consisting of radio and television. Neutral headlines, news shows explaining the facts rather being full of opinions constitute what one can consider as news.
 
On the contrary, [Fake News] tends to originate from media houses that are not so responsible, doesn’t cite credible sources, is either highly opinionated or is manufactured to gain some benefit either commercially or politically.
Fake news, true to its name, does not have any virtuous or generous intentions while being propagated ad leads to certain consequences that result in mistrust, chaos and chaos in the society. Especially in challenging times like the COVID-19 Pandemic, the devastation that [Fake News] can lead to increases manifolds. From, spreading false information about the symptoms of the disease, or creating multiple sources of the virus, from prescribing absurd forms of treatments to creating panic in the name of lockdowns and the implementation of the Disaster Management Act, the disease of fake news infects all sections of the society.
 
One of the most recent instances that were a consequence of spreading [Fake News] was that of panic buying[2]. Days before the Union Government declared nationwide lockdown to curb the cases of COVID-19, multiple Whatsapp messages begun circulating in groups all around the country, stating that all vegetable markets, grocery shops and dairy markets will be closed indefinitely and thus people should stock up their homes as difficult times lie ahead. Following this message, millions of people flocked to markets and shopping malls all around the nation to purchase ration, vegetables, toiletries, medications etc The impact of these unverified messages was so huge, that multiple dairy shops of Mother Dairy and AMUL ran out of milk and dairy products as people were not ready to listen to neither the government nor the shopkeeper as their minds have been overtaken by panic and chaos, all due to some phoney messages spread by certain miscreants.
 
Another category of fake news message that went viral on Whatsapp groups around the country was rather more dangerous as it dealt with prescribing the certain form of treatment to the sensitive COVID-19 pandemic. 
According to one such message, the AYUSH Ministry, Government of India had granted permission to homoeopathic doctors to treat Coronavirus patients. However, later the official Twitter handle of the AYUSH Ministry itself quashed this information as fake news[3].
 
The worst-hit sector by rumours relating to the pandemic has been the poultry sector. The many rumours associated with the consumption of chicken has put a dent in sales and put the poultry industry in a pickle [Fake News] that coronavirus infection can be spread by chickens has slashed Indian poultry sales by almost fifty per-cent. According to newspaper reports, Ajit Ranade, head of the poultry division of Bombay Veterinary College was explained the plight of the poultry industry due to the pandemic in the following words,
“During the bird flu outbreak of 2006, there was a decline in chicken consumption to some extent. But with social media now, rumours have spread very fast and are proving dearly to the farmers.”
However as per government records, not a single incident of any occurrence of Coronavirus in chicken has been reported anywhere in the country, and as per the recent studies states with a high percentage of vegetarians have more cases than states with a low percentage of vegetarians. 
 
The Do It Yourself (DIY) methods and hacks to treat the novel Coronavirus have also been going rounds on social media. Be it Twitter or Whatsapp, these messages are found everywhere. One [Fake News] that spread all through the country and even internationally was that related to the usage of hydroxychloroquine[4]. 
 The false news being spread about this lifesaver medicine for malaria was limited not only to its users but also to its the source and it does not come as a surprise that both of them were false. 
One such message claimed, “Hydroxychloroquine is founded 100% in Kalonji seed. So take 7 Kalonji seed with Honey mix with hot water take before breakfast. To prevent yourself to be attacked from COVID-19 Coronavirus.”  The scientists acted rather swiftly and shunned this message and thus prevented further spread of information.
 
[Fake News] can prove to be disastrous at certain moments and can even lead o high scale chaos and disorder in the country. For instance, false news about the railway services being resumed spread like forest fire among the migrant labourers in the estate of Maharashtra, leading to the wild scale violation of the nationwide lockdown, declared by the union government, to tackle the further spread of the virus.
The Maharashtra Cyber unit of the State Home Department has identified over 30 accounts on various social media and online platforms that were involved in disseminating false information regarding the start of train services on April 15. The Maharashtra state and Cyber cell have now started initiating action against
the creators, propagators of fake WhatsApp messages and videos or against group admins who continue to ignore the instructions shared by the police authorities from time to time.
 
The amount of disinformation spreading, especially with respect to the medicine of Hydroxychloroquine was so high that people began flocking to drugstores and chemists to get as many strips of the medicine as possible. Later, the government had to intervene and the health care experts made it clear that it is unsafe to consume this medicine without medical supervision.
The [Fake News] propagated can be absurd quite a few times. As in the case of information being spread about Russia’s unique tactics to fight coronavirus, by letting live tigers on Moscow streets. According to one Twitter user, “Russian President Vladimir Putin released 800 lions and tigers across Russia to devour anyone who comes out. Stay home or die hard. GOAT,” There have been multiple messages, citing the same information and this absurd tactic had gone viral on social media
 
From the Government distributing all Indians Rs1000 each, to distributing an Unemployment allowance of Rs50000 to all those who have lost their jobs in the pandemic, from all users getting a free internet package for the three month lockdown period[5], to legal action being taken against posting joke related to the pandemic[6], there is a huge variety of [Fake News] infesting the internet, during the time of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
 

SOME LAWS TO CURB FAKE NEWS

As fake news can be disastrous and disrupt the law and order in the society, multiple laws have been framed to battle [Fake News] and boo those who manufacture and spread the same, intentionally or unintentionally. Some legal provisions, that have been formulated to tackle  the virus of [Fake News] are explained below:
 
1.Section 505(1) of Indian Penal Code, 1860: The punishment for making, publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report which may cause fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public.
  • Punishment: Imprisonment which may extend to 3 years or fine or both.
 
2. Section 66D of the Information Technology Act: Whoever, by means for any communication device or computer resource, cheats by personating.
  • Punishment: imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine which may extend to one lakh rupees.
3.Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005: Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic.
  • Punishment: Imprisonment which may extend to one year or with a fine.

Some recent actions were taken by the authorities around the world

  • Maharashtra: Maharashtra police have registered as many as 51 cases across the state against various individuals spreading fake news, rumours and false or fraudulent claims concerning the pandemic. In one specific case a newspaper advertisement dated March 13, claiming that the mattresses could cure Covid-19 resulted in an FIR being registered against the owner of mattress company.
  • Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow: A fake Godman Ahmad Siddiqui calling himself as “Corona Wale Baba” claimed that those who could not wear a mask could use the talisman to keep corona away. He has been arrested for fraud and forgery.
  • Odisha: A man has been arrested for posting false information on Facebook regarding a Kerala-returned person who had tested positive for coronavirus and was under treatment in Rayagada.
  • Palestinian Government has also taken strict action against the spread of [Fake News] about coronavirus. The Palestinian Authority General Intelligence Service arrested two Palestinians suspected of creating an audio message about the discovery of coronavirus cases and another one for posting a fake comment on his Facebook page claiming that 12 new coronavirus cases have been detected in their city creating panic.
 
Apart from the administration, implementing laws to curb the virus of [Fake News], an equal responsibility lies on the shoulders of the general public, to prevent and hinder the spread of unverified information.
 

CRAAP TEST

Citizens can perform a simple litmus test, called the CRAAP Test[7] on any news they find suspicious. One just needs to look at the content for its currency—the timeliness of the information, relevance— importance of information to one’s needs, authority— source of the information, accuracy: reliability and truthfulness of the information, and purpose—the reason the information exists. If the results, of the CRAAP Analysis, aren’t satisfactory, then the news is deemed to be fake.
Fake news or the news that is phoney or false has existed since the very beginning. With the advancement in internet technology and the dawn of the social media age, the problem of the fake news has multiplied manifolds. Especially in times as sensitive as the COVID-19 global crisis, fake news can not only create panic and confusion but can also lead to widespread chaos and social unrest, further worsening the critical situation. Therefore, apart from COVID-19, the other pandemic that haunts humanity is the Pandemic of Fake News.

ENDNOTES

  1.  ‘Dictionary’<https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fake-news> Accessed on 08 April 2020
  2. Kiran Parashar,’Whatsapp message causes panic buying in Bengluru’TOI(Bengaluru,11 April 2020) https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/whatsapp-forward-causes-panic-buying-in-bengaluru/articleshow/75089988.cms
  3. Correspondent,’ WhatsApp message on Homeopathy and coronavirus treatment is fake’TOI(timesofindia.com,28 April 2020) http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/75425274.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
  4. Nabeela Khan ‘Misleading cure circulates in India that hydroxychloroquine is found in nigella seeds’Health Analytics Asia(Health Analytics Asia,11 April 2020)
  5.  Namrata Aggarwal,’ Fake websites offering free internet to collect personal data amid coronavirus COVID-19 lockdown;,Zee News(zeenews.india.com, Apr 26, 2020) https://zeenews.india.com/india/fake-websites-offering-free-internet-to-collect-personal-data-amid-coronavirus-covid-19-lockdown-2279303.html Accessed on 08 April 2020
  6.  Vikash Aiyappa,’ False: No govt order passed to punish those who post jokes on coronavirus’,OneIndia(oneindia.com,07 April 2020) https://www.oneindia.com/india/false-no-govt-order-passed-to-punish-those-who-post-jokes-on-coronavirus-3066876.html Accessed on 08 April 2020
  7. ‘Fake News: How to Spot It’(prattlibrary) https://www.prattlibrary.org/research/tools/index.aspx?cat=90&id=4735 Accessed on 08 April 2020
 
BY- Ishan Dhyani & Arnav Sirki
Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, GGSIPU, Delhi

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