The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has asked social media platforms such Chinese firm ByteDance-owned TikTok and Helo to remove any users on their platforms who have been found spreading fake news and misinformation amid the coronavirus pandemic and ‘infodemic’.
The move by MeitY comes close on the heels of a report by Voyager Infosec, a Delhi-based digital lab, which stated that amid the coronavirus outbreak TikTok had seen a surge in fake videos aimed at misleading Indian Muslims regarding COVID-19.
The report, the highlights of which have been accessed by The Quint, shows that in the process of their investigation, they found a targeted campaign of disinformation and fake news to influence Indian Muslims to ignore health advisories for coronavirus, citing religious sentiments.
According to Voyager’s findings, TikTok is the primary platform being used to to create and spread high-impact professional videos which instigate Indian Muslims against social distancing measures and the lockdown implemented by the government to control the spread of coronavirus.
Voyager’s report speaks about 50 such videos, although their initial investigation revealed hundreds of such videos.
Deliberate Attempts to Mislead Muslims
Voyager further found that these videos use a mix of Hindi and light Urdu, indicating that they are aimed at Indian Muslims. Some of them quote religious texts to encourage Muslims to not stop shaking hands and to continue visiting religious places despite the lockdown. Some of them also share reports which claim that coronavirus cannot kill Muslims.
A report by India Today describes some of the videos analysed by Voyager.
According to their report, one such video has a young boy describing the pandemic as ‘Allah’s NRC’, claiming that Allah decides who will live and who won’t. The clip reportedly ends with boys throwing their masks into the air, with a song, "Allah Se Dar..." playing in the background.
In another clip which says that Muslims cannot be affected by coronavirus, the Holy Quran is invoked to claim that hand-shaking and hugging can cure the disease.
Yet another video shows that face masks cannot be of any use and shows a man donning a skull cap instead.
Some of these clips can be seen in an India Today report.
Moreover, many of the accounts that first uploaded these videos were deleted soon after the videos went viral, suggesting a deliberate and malicious intent behind their creation and propagation.
The Quint had earlier reported on how TikTok users and influencers had been fuelling fake news and misinformation about the virus on the platform.
MeitY Asks TikTok to Remove Users Sharing COVID-Related Fake News
According to the MeitY memo sent to TikTok and Helo and accessed by The Quint, the government body has asked the social media platform to not only ensure that the users be removed, that such messages do not go viral and are removed as well, but to also preserve their information so that it can be shared with law enforcement agencies in case such a request is made in the future to help them with any possible investigations.
The memo also asks the said platforms to work in tandem with other social media platforms to ensure that the posts which are removed do not persist on other platforms and can be identified and removed as soon as possible.
MeitY has also asked TikTok to share a daily report with the body of all “proactive measures” taken by the platform regarding this issue.
The memo says that this request is being made in view of the fact that misinformation and fake messages are capable of weakening the government’s efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus and misinformation surrounding it.
According to a report by Reuters, MeitY has also asked Facebook to take the same measures against users spreading fake news on the platform.
Actively Working With Govt: TikTok
TikTok has responded to the situation, saying that they are working on elevating credible information on the platform.
"We are actively working with the government to support them in their efforts to fight misinformation and proactively also working to elevate credible information related to COVID-19 on our platform," a TikTok spokesperson told The Quint.
In a newsroom post on 4 April, TikTok said that they had heightened their moderation efforts and were monitoring and systematically removing content from the platform that violated their community guidelines.
The platform also said that they had removed thousands of videos which contradicted facts about COVID-19 and were suspending or banning user accounts found to violate their policies.
“...when necessary, we even report miscreants to relevant authorities to ensure public safety,” their post further said.
YouTube Channels Also Spread Misinformation
The Voyager report also talks about some YouTube channels which have uploaded videos and audio recording of Tablighi Jamaat Markaz chief Maulana Saad asking Muslims to mock social distancing.
One such channel also posted a video claiming that not even one positive case had been found among the members of the Markaz.
Further, Voyager notes that some of these videos seem to be shot in Pakistan and the Middle East but have Hindi superimposed on them.
The report, which has been submitted to the MHA for consideration and action, states that there is a systematic and deliberate disinformation campaign aimed at misleading Muslims and inciting religious sentiments.
(With inputs from Reuters and India Today.)
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