Disinformation in Times of A Pandemic

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Any kind of panic at this time of epidemic due to unverified and false messages among masses will have devastating effects and compound the miseries of people already suffering

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  Brijesh Singh & Khushbu Jain

The world has been battling a deluge of misinformation and influence operations for a long time now. The advent of internet, social media platforms and real time messengers has given a free run to criminals, miscreants, nation states and other motivated actors. In fact, society today is experiencing something called an ‘information disorder’ where it has become extremely difficult to disambiguate truth from falsehood.
Covid19 spread to almost 190 countries, and with more and more people forced to stay home during quarantine, internet usage is bound to be higher than usual as people have resorted to online platforms for working remotely, seeking knowledge, reaching out to loved ones and also at the time of crises people are eager to share personal details and any misinformation at this crucial time can have devastating effect.
Tensions have always been a breeding ground of information operations. The Covid19 pandemic has provided such malicious actors with a readymade context to cause disruption and seek profit or take advantage of vulnerable individuals and populace. As the world wrestles with a pandemic caused by a new coronavirus, COVID-19, the authorities around the world are forced to face an avalanche of misinformation / false news about the virus on digital platforms. When it comes to reliability and acceptance of any information, people’s trust have shifted from traditional to internet /social media platforms.
Rumors are a lethal weapon that affects the morale of the people. The Law enforcement agencies have power under law to take legal action against anyone who spreads rumors about the virus and causes a state of panic among the general population. Even though, at present, India does not have a specific law to deal with menace of fake news but we still have existing legal provisions under Indian Penal Code, 1860 etc which can be invoked in case of misinformation. Some existing legal provisions are as under:

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.

Section 507 of Indian Penal Code, 1860

In addition to this punishment if a person commits the offence of criminal intimidation by an anonymous communication, or having taken precaution to conceal the name or abode of the person from whom the threat comes.
Punishment: Imprisonment which may extend to two years. 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 fine.
Before creating, posting, sharing and forwarding any message, one needs to be aware about the implications of the same if not true and create panic in any way. One needs to refrain from forwarding any corona related messages without verifying specially in this age of “infodemic” which the World Health Organisation defines as – “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.
The Law enforcement agencies are monitoring such posts on social media platforms and can land you in a legal battle or jail.

Some recent actions taken by the authorities around the world :

  • Maharashtra: Maharashtra police has registered as many as 36 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.
  • Kenya: one man arrested for spreading fake news on twitter. Government has issued warning to the individuals sharing videos on social media with fake information about the coronavirus and the extent of its spread in the country and investigating fake and alarming videos on #covid19kenya #coronaInkenya and will take action of arrest, and prosecution of such individuals.
  • Morocco: There have been dozens of arrests for spreading rumours about the coronavirus. One such arrest was of a lady spreading a fake claim that the disease did not exist using her YouTube channel. Individuals are expected to exercise a higher degree of caution in these troubled times. A small indiscretion of forwarding an unverified message can lead to loss of life or cause a serious disturbance of public order. With governmental and public resources pushed to limits, it is incumbent upon the general public to perform diligence in their interactions with reference to the Pandemic. There are some simple steps that can be undertaken by one and all which will lead to a thwarting of mischievous designs and attempts to cause disruption.

These measures include:

  • Ascertaining the source and origin of the message. If one is not sure of the authenticity and correctness of the message or its content, one may make attempts to be sure of the veracity of the matter before forwarding it to others.
  • In case of any claims made in the message one has received, conduct secondary checks on google or other sites before disseminating it.
  • If the message incites strong emotions, it is likely to be sent for such purposes. Any shocking or outrageous claim made needs to be verified before it is sent to others who may believe it completely.
  • In case of the message containing videos or pictures, there is a possibility of them being edited or used out of context to mislead unsuspecting recipients. A simple reverse image search on google can reveal the original source and context of the picture. Any harm resulting from such forwarding can make the person doing so liable to legal consequences.
  • Use factchecking services, there are many reputed factchecking sites, which help people to verify claims made on social media or messages which have gone viral.
  • Sometimes there would be obvious spelling, punctuation mistakes or other grammatical errors which can point out the inauthenticity of the message. One needs to develop a healthy scepticism towards content on social media.
These simple measures can go a long way in the fight against disinformation and Fake News being spread about the CoronaVirus pandemic.
In order to combat the spread of the epidemic disease, India and other nations are taking every set of precautionary measures from advisory of social distancing, quarantine, to lockdowns and curfews. Considering the gravity of the situation governments are issuing circulars/ notifications almost every day, any such government notifications/ advisories if fake or fraudulent posing to be from the government can create havoc.
The existing legal provisions do cater to penalizing creation of false content and the malicious distribution thereof, but in the absence of any designated legislation, which enables for timely/instant removal of such content once it has been published. The Ministry of Electronic & Information Technology on March 20 , 2020 issued an advisory to curb false news / misinformation on coronavirus to all the social media platforms (intermediaries u/s 2(1)(w) of Information Technology Act, 2000). This directive advised them to conduct due diligence and take immediate action so as to disable or remove such content hosted on their platforms. The directive further entails them to initiate awareness campaigns for users to not to upload or circulate any such false news or misinformation. The recent initiative of WhatsApp’s launching of a 'Coronavirus Information Hub' in partnership with International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is one such appreciable move.
Any kind of panic at this time of epidemic due to unverified and false messages among masses will have devastating effects and compound the miseries of people already suffering. In the coming days when a large portion of the human race remains under lockdowns, the intensity and frequency of online communications is bound to surge. The state and its different enforcement apparatus have to remain ever vigilant in the online and virtual worlds to protect individuals and society from the lurking dangers of an Infodemic. This entails timely detection of content before it goes viral and causes widespread damage, taking it down with the help of social media platforms and intermediaries and tracing the sources of such mischief. Media outlets and the press also have an enhanced responsibility to make people aware and increase literacy about the menace of fake news and misinformation.
(Brijesh Singh is Inspector General of Police, Maharashtra and Khushbu jain is practicing Advocate in Supreme Court of India. The views expressed are personal)