How COVID-19-Related Fake News Took a Turn From Health to Communal

The researchers pointed out that a spike in fake news was seen in mid-March before the lockdown was announced.

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WebQoof
4 min read

Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

A new study shows how fake news around COVID-19 has travelled, who are the people sharing it, how there is a spike in misinformation after every news event and how misinformation has moved from health, like fake cures and origin, to communal and xenophobic – targeting a religion or race, in the past three months.

The study, conducted by four researchers between 23 January to 12 April, divides misinformation into various categories. The researchers relied upon 243 stories which have been debunked by certified fact-checking organisations in India, including The Quint’s WebQoof initiative.

The Quint spoke to Joyojeet Pal and Syeda Zainab Akbar, two of the researchers and co-authors of the study.

(You can read all our fact-checked stories here.)

According to Akbar, the researchers found a change in the kind of COVID-19-related fake news which was being shared in March this year, as the number of cases grew in India.

“As we come towards coronavirus spreading in India, we see there was a target towards Muslim community saying that they were the spreaders of coronavirus because of the spitting, contagion and those kind of stuff.”
Syeda Zainab Akbar, Social Media Researcher

Alluding to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, Akbar said that they have also noticed that there is a spike in disinformation around news events.

Pal pointed out that the ‘real spike’ in misinformation around coronavirus was seen in mid-March when the schools in various states were shutdown before the lockdown was announced on 24 March.

Misinformation and News Events

The study also reveals that there is a transition witnessed in mis/disinformation around major news events.

“After Janata curfew or whenever there is a PM address, we could see a spike in culture and government-related misinformation. The pattern is after every event there is a spike. After the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, we saw misinformation related to that,” Akbar added.

The study highlights an increase in 'culture'-related and government-related stories in the month of March. Culture-related stories refer to the ones about a particular religion/ethnic group or social group, while government-related stories refer to advisories and announcements attributed to the authorities. For example, an old video of a man wreaking havoc inside a mosque from Karachi was circulated to claim that the members of Tablighi Jamaat were misbehaving with the hospital staff. This is categorised under the 'culture' category in the study. Another viral post falsely attributed to the Ministry of Home Affairs claimed that posting anything on social media about COVID-19 is a criminal offence. This is categorised as a the 'government' category in the study.

How COVID-19-Related Fake News Took a Turn From Health to Communal
(Source: Study on Fake News Around COVID-19/Screenshot)

Pal pointed out that there was a decrease in cure-related stories between mid-March and April and misinformation ‘dramatically turns against Muslims’ who were then blamed for intentionally spreading COVID-19.

Akbar also mentioned how the misinformation in this category mostly relies on old videos and photographs to evoke an emotional response.

“There is an increase in the kind of stories that incite some kind of fear, emotion or some sort of a belongingness, rather than stories which have wrong statistics on the number of deaths or location or things like that. There has been a substantial increase from before to now in the affective stories.”
Syeda Zainab Akbar, Social Media Researcher

The study also focusses on how organisations and individuals are the ‘spreads of misinformation’.

‘News Organisations, Politicians Share Fake News’

According to the study, politicians or institutions are more likely to spread misinformation pertaining to government. Similarly, businesses are misguiding readers on cure or economy-related stories and celebrities on the other hand are seen falling for and spreading culture-related misinformation.

Akbar points out how news organisations share a lot of culture-related stories adding “There are stories on how Muslims are licking fruits to spread coronavirus or of people using religious reasons to say, 'we don’t want to get tested'. We did see a lot of reportage like this on news channels.”

She also mentions that public figures and channels sharing misinformation give it some sort of credibility and even though the intention isn’t known, the consequences are known.

“Political figures also shared stories which were nature-and-environment-based. There is a story by PIB, a cure-based story, where alternate and AYUSH (ministry) medicines were being suggested, but there wasn’t enough evidence to back that,” she added.

Citing an example of how political leaders also share information which is later found out to be false, Pal said,

“Manish Tewari of Congress who made an unverified claim that homeopathy might have cured Prince Charles and that it should be looked at for India, and Subramanian Swamy made another unreferenced claim that the Indian strain of COVID-19 is weaker than the global strain.”
Joyojeet Pal, Social Media Researcher

The research paper further adds that though there is no data on ‘political complicity in the spreading of misinformation’, there still are numerous instances where politicians are found spreading misinformation.

In just the last one month, WebQoof has debunked false claims giving the Palghar lynching case and the Bandra migrant workers fiasco a false communal spin. Viral posts incorrectly portrayed the video of a lodging facility in Andhra Pradesh as a Hindu temple being desecrated. Old videos from Pakistan were regularly used to incorrectly portray and malign the Muslim community in India. The video of Dawoodi Bohras tradition of licking the utensils after eating to avoid wastage of any food was also shared with a false coronavirus angle.

As validated by the Akbar and Pal's study, fact-checkers have had to deal with a surge in communally charged fake news as compared to the health and treatment related misinformation in the earlier months of the pandemic.

You can read all our fact-checked stories here.

(Not convinced of a post or information you came across online and want it verified? Send us the details on WhatsApp at 9643651818, or e-mail it to us at webqoof@thequint.com and we'll fact-check it for you. You can also read all our fact-checked stories here.)

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