(On 26 November 2021, the farmers' protest against the three contentious farm laws completes one year. This piece from The Quint's archives is being republished to throw light on the amount of misinformation that plagued the protests.)
Almost a year ago, on 25 November 2020, farmers' union – mainly from Punjab and Haryana – marched towards the national capital demanding repeal of the three farm laws as a part of their 'Delhi Chalo' movement.
Thousands of farmers from parts of the country supported this call and stood up against the farm laws which they say hurt their interests and leave them at the mercy of big corporates.
What started here has been a long, ongoing fight which has been marred by misinformation, false narratives, and propaganda.
The Quint's WebQoof has debunked 101 pieces of misinformation between October 2020 and October 2021 and we found that the most prevalent narrative in the items analysed was the targeting of the farmers – little over 39 percent of the sample – thereby trying to discredit the protests.
In the subsequent sections of this report, we will elaborate what our data says about:
What kind of narratives were built around the farmers' protests?
Where did the misinformation stem from?
What kind of misinformation was used to target the stakeholders? Was it false content, manipulated media, or false narratives?
Narratives Around the Farmers' Protests
Out of a sample of 101 stories, nearly 40 percent of the stories filed by The Quint's WebQoof team were related to claims targeting farmers in an effort to discredit the protests.
Out of these 40 percent stories, around 15 percent of the claims added a Khalistan angle to the agitation, accusing the protesters of being Khalistan sympathisers.
For instance, videos showing protesters desecrating the national flag have been shared on multiple occasions to claim that the farmers are not fighting against the farm laws but for a separate state – Khalistan.
We also found that nearly 27 percent of the debunks were of claims that were using old and unrelated pictures/videos to either support the protest or oppose it.
One widespread claim was using an image from 2018 that showed police resorting to the use of water cannons on protesters and falsely linking it to the ongoing farmers' agitation.
However, it must be noted that, in this case, though the image was old, it was true that the farmers faced batons and water cannons, and suffered injuries on multiple occasions.
Meanwhile, some old images were also used to target the farmers. However, they were significantly less in number.
For instance, an image that could be traced back at least to 2016 was used to claim that some cities were completely 'open' and did not support the nationwide Bharat Bandh called by protesting farmers on 27 September.
Other than the above-mentioned narratives, there were several claims targeting the ruling party and police officers. We also observed some misleading narratives that were created to show that politicians of the Opposition parties supported the farm laws.
Who Were the Ones Spreading This Misinformation?
Of the 101 pieces of misinformation that we debunked in this period, we noticed that 31.6 percent false claims came from verified quarters such as mainstream media, political parties, and leaders.
Among political leaders and parties we documented – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) IT Cell Head Amit Malviya, BJP leader Sambit Patra, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Congress Spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, among others, relied on false/manipulated content to make false claims.
The misinformation that was shared by the leaders of the BJP or allies mostly targeted (directly or indirectly) farmers and the Opposition, while the Opposition relied on old, unrelated images targeting the government.
For instance: Malviya shared a clipped video to claim that no force was used against the protesting farmers at Singhu border in November last year and that the Opposition was creating a false narrative. Similar claims were rallied by other leaders affiliated with the party.
Similarly, Congress leaders like Surjewala shared an unrelated image to show a farmer's grave injury.
We have also noted that even the mainstream media misreported on events related to the farmers' protest at several occasions.
For instance, on 26 January 2021, when the protest turned violent, several media houses misreported that farmers raised the 'Khalistan' flag atop the Red Fort.
This was in continuation with the misleading narrative that the ones protesting were not farmers but supporters of the Khalistan movement. The repercussions of this piece of misinformation were grave and could have fuelled an already volatile situation.
However, this turned out to be wrong. Similar narratives were built by some of the mainstream news organisations where they relied on misleading content to report on the farmers' protests.
Types of Misinformation
To categorise the types of misinformation that we saw during this period, we relied on First Draft's categorisation of misinformation. The seven categories and their definitions are below:
Satire/parody: No intention to cause harm
Misleading content: Misleading use of information to frame an issue/individual
Imposter content: When content is impersonated
Fabricated content: When content is fabricated
False connection: When the content is not supported by the headline or caption
False context: When real content is shared with a false context
Manipulated content: When genuine imagery is manipulated
As per our data set, the most common type of misinformation that was used to misinform was 'false connection', that is, images, posts, or videos were not necessarily manipulated but they were linked to the farmers' protest even when there was no connection to them.
Nearly, 43 percent of the debunks fall under this category, followed by 31 percent under misleading content, and 18 percent under false context.
With farmers protesting against the three farm laws passed by the Centre, fact-checkers across the country have been fighting the mis/disinformation around it for a year.
The analysis carried out by The Quint's WebQoof team shows that the movement was riddled with misinformation.
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