Can a WhatsApp Admin Be Arrested for Sharing Info on COVID-19?

A viral forward claims that WhatsApp group admins must close their groups for 2 days as police can take action them.

Updated07 Apr 2020, 03:20 PM IST
WebQoof
6 min read

"How safe is it to post anything on WhatsApp? If I am the admin of a WhatsApp group, will I be arrested if I post anything on coronavirus?"

Ever since the lockdown was announced on 25 March, a lot of unverified forwards and social media posts regarding coronavirus, the lockdown and steps taken by the government have been making rounds on social media, creating significant confusion in the minds of people.

Now, amid the storm of misinformation on social media, a new forward has gone viral on WhatsApp.

(Click here for live updates on COVID-19. Also visit Quint Fit for comprehensive coverage on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.)

WHAT DOES THE MESSAGE SAY?

Group admin is requested to close group for 2days as police can take action against admin & group members vide section 68, 140 & 188 if anyone even by mistake post a joke on corona or on the government’s actions. Everyone could be in trouble. Hence the attention of group admin to take necessary steps.

Dear All,

Mandate for All:

Tonight 12 ( midnight) onwards Disaster Management Act has been implemented across the country. According to this update, apart from the Govt department no other citizen is allowed to post any update or share any forward related to Corona virus and it being punishable offence.

Group Admins are requested to post the above update and inform the groups.

Please adhere this strictly. (sic)

Is the Message True?

No, it is false.

Firstly, the sections under which a person can be punished are stated vaguely without the mention of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The message mentions that the police can take action under Section 68, 140 and 188.

With respect to the latter part of the message, which mentions the Disaster Management Act, it may be assumed that the sections being referred here are part of this Act.

However, on checking the Act, we found that while there is a Section 68, it does not mention anything about spreading fake news or making jokes about coronavirus. Section 68 simply talks about authentication of orders or decisions. The reference to Section 140 is also without any basis as there is no such provision in the Disaster Management Act, nor is Section 140 of any other criminal law relevant to this issue.

Section 188 of the IPC is somewhat relevant here, as it punishes disobedience of any order by a public servant. The Centre’s orders regarding the 21-day coronavirus lockdown have emphasised that violations of the lockdown would be punishable under Section 188.

This is also the provision under which violations of State-specific orders under the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 – which several States have passed to combat COVID-19 – would be punishable.

However, neither Section 188, nor any provisions of the Disaster Management Act (which were invoked back on 24 March itself, not now), make it illegal to share jokes or criticism of government action regarding the coronavirus crisis. Nor do they say anything about only allowing the government to share information about a ‘disaster’ like this, so there is no question that citizens cannot be allowed to talk, update or share news related to the coronavirus.

The Quint has previously debunked the second part of the message, which had already been circulating, in detail.

So, If I Am the Admin & I Share Information on COVID-19, Will I Be Held Responsible?

Let’s look at what the two Acts — Disaster Management Act, 2005 and Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 —  have to say here.

As per the Disaster Management Act, there is no provision that mentions that apart from government departments, no other citizen can be allowed to talk, update or share any news related to a disaster.

Section 54 of the DMA states, “Punishment for false warning — Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic, shall on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.”

Hence, it states that only information that is false, unverified and can trigger panic is punishable and not information from verified sources or that which is grounded in facts.

As per the Epidemic Diseases Act, under Section 2 of this Act, state governments and union territories can take special measures to contain the disease. Following which, section 3 provides that disobedience of any regulations can invite penal provisions under Section 188 of the IPC.

So unless the information being shared on WhatsApp group is false and unverified, there is no violation of the law.

What Should I Share/Not Share?

Mis/disinformation is obviously to be avoided. There are a number of messages forwarded on WhatsApp that are curated and shared to suit a malicious agenda and create unrest. During a time like this, such mis/disinformation can be lethal.

The government has time and again, also cautioned, even warned people to not post misinformation on WhatsApp groups, to create panic or hate.

However, there is no provision in any of the government order stopping individuals from posting any information regarding COVID-19.

The key caveat when sharing is to be sure of your source of information. Refer to several websites and portals, and if you cannot verify it from your end, then it is best not to share it further on your groups.

To combat the sharing of misleading information by healthcare professionals, WhatsApp has itself put out the following statement on its own platform:

“Please use WhatsApp responsibly while connecting with your customers. Only communicate with users you know and those who wish to receive messages from you, ask customers to save your phone number in their address book, and avoid sending automated or promotional messages to groups. Not following these simple best practices could result in complaints from other users and possibly an account ban.”

Further, in a recent development, WhatsApp has put a limit on forwarded message to slow down the spread of misinformation.

Can I – as a WhatsApp Group Admin – Be Arrested If I Don’t Delete the Message or Remove the Person Who Sent It?

From time to time, certain districts and State authorities have passed orders which have said admins of WhatsApp groups can be held liable for illegal content on their groups – with regard to coronavirus, basically fake news.

The police are likely to use such orders as a basis for arresting admins who don’t take measures to moderate conversation, delete messages or remove people who sent them.

However, it should be noted that in the absence of such a specific order by your local administration (normally a Section 144 order issued by the District Magistrate), an admin cannot be held responsible for a fake message on one of their groups.

In fact, there are lawyers with expertise on freedom of speech and digital technology, who argue that even if such orders were to exist, the admin should not be held liable for failing to delete such content as deletion also means destroying the evidence, which is in turn punishable under section 204 of IPC.

Cyber law expert Pavan Duggal spoke to The Quint about the legal duties of a group admin. “If you’re the WhatsApp admin of a group, you are responsible for the messages posted on the group. It is your legal responsibility, thanks to section 79 of the IT Act,” he said.

“The admins are mandated to exercise diligence under section 2(c) of the IT Act. There are several rules and regulations under the Act under intermediary guidelines rules made there under. They must ask the members on the group to not post or upload any such content on the platform which is in violation of the law, is defamatory in nature, or impacts the sovereignty or integrity of India,” Duggal pointed out.

Some lawyers think that deleting such messages may amount to destroying evidence. To this, Duggal stated that the admin can take a screenshot if necessary. He said that “the law states the admin must disable access to such kind of information without vitiating the original electronic evidence in any manner.”

Nevertheless, it is advisable to be aware of the law, and one’s responsibility to not peddle fake news amid a pandemic. Admins should try to ensure that no fake news is spread on their groups, whether through moderation or calling out such information as fake.

As long as false news is not being spread, there is no restriction on citizens to share any news or updates about the coronavirus situation. The viral message is therefore false and misleading.

You can read all our fact-checked stories on coronavirus 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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Published: 07 Apr 2020, 02:00 PM IST
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