India, which entered the fourth phase of the world’s largest lockdown on May 18, continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, a diverse set of stakeholders has taken on an increasingly worrying trend of misinformation and fake news regarding the pandemic.
Social media is frequently a platform of choice for gleaning information here, so the battle against fake news has had to cover several aspects and be launched on numerous different fronts. Given how quickly developments are taking place during the pandemic, and the myriad of information bytes penetrating the various platforms, it has been extremely difficult to mobilise an effective response.
The challenge with fake news has been that it is relatively believable but starkly truth adjacent, which helps it to spread rampantly. It is worrying that there has been a significant uptick in misinformation and fake news on the pandemic in India since the initial outbreak.
Newspapers and other news platforms have therefore taken it upon themselves to combat this disturbing trend. The shape that the response has taken has extended to active collaborative messaging by media houses, awareness campaigns, positive messaging on the credibility and reliability of established media houses, and activating the message of credibility during the pandemic that has been consistently communicated by the government of India.
Response by and role of credible news organisations
It has been a collaborative and consolidated response to misinformation while reiterating the importance of credible news. Several newspapers are entering into joint initiatives to combat fake news while also issuing joint statements to a diverse reader base. Encouragingly, both the central government and state governments overall have provided blanket support to newspapers and news organisations to be the primary disseminators of credible information.
All the newspapers have issued a “print is safe” campaign, and a number of newspapers — including several INMA members Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, Eenadu, Hindustan Times, the Patrika Group and several others — issued a joint statement in early April communicating that newspaper distribution across India has largely stabilised. The statement also iterated how the publishers took pride in having fulfilled their responsibility to deliver credible news through newspapers to their readers. This is vitally important given that several informal sources credit an increase of 50% time on average by readers perusing newspapers.
The Times of India and Dainik Bhaskar have launched a joint initiative to fight fake news in an innovative and humorous way through a fake news centred game show that puts a satirical spin on WhatsApp forwards.
While attempting to prevent the spread of misinformation and disinformation pertaining to COVID 19, Jagran News Media’s fact checking portal, Vishvas News, is also orienting users to make them aware about the misinformation spreading on the social media.
Social media and measures taken for the COVID-19 response
Social media has been particularly susceptible to fake news. And since a significant percentage of Indians consume news from social media as an option of first resort, the authorities in India have had to work with the mediums to reduce misinformation.
The central government issued an advisory on March 20to social media companies to clamp down on the circulation of false information and unverified data on the outbreak. It also deployed its own officials to debunk fake news encouraging measures to be taken by all social media companies.
Each social media platform has taken measures to tackle this:
- WhatsApp: WhatsApp’s vulnerability, as arguably the most susceptible platform because of its end-to-end encryption feature, made it almost impossible to track the original source and the easy forward feature. To tackle the issue, WhatsApp announced a limit on frequently forwarded messages to only be forwarded to one chat at a time — the “limit” kicking in once a message has been previously forwarded over five times. Twitter broadened its definition of “harm” to address content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources.
- Facebook: Facebook created a Corona Help desk Chatbot on its Messenger platform in India to raise awareness, and to provide authentic and accurate information, with a user link to the Ministry of Health for authentic information. It has also partnered with the International Fact-Checking Network to provide flash grants in at least 45 countries for fact-checkers fighting coronavirus-linked misinformation.
- Google: Google built a dedicated COVID-19 task force with a team dedicated to blocking ads on the basis of price-gouging, capitalising on global medical supply shortages, making misleading claims about cures and promoting illegitimate unemployment benefits.
- TikTok: Bytedance’s TikTok, an extremely popular app in India, introduced a “Misleading Information” category, along with a COVID-19 sub-category, within the in-app reporting feature. Recently, TikTok launched a public service announcement aptly titled #MatKarForward (Don’t Forward) to raise awareness among the digital community around creation and sharing of misinformation.
The challenge of vetting and preventing the spread of fake news is apparent in a Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism report on global English fact checks that studied data for January, February, and March 2020. The study found that 59% of false posts on Twitter, 27% on YouTube, and 24% on Facebook remain active without a direct warning label on them. While the various initiatives undertaken by social media companies are a step in the right direction, more intensified measures — especially in India, where a lot of social media users consume audio-visual regional content — are the need of the hour.
Emerging patterns and uncertainty
A study released in April 2020 on the misinformation in India by scholars from the University of Michigan has shown a rise in the number of debunked stories, particularly post the first lockdown in March.
From just two stories in late January, the instances of debunked misinformation rose to 60 by the first week of April, according to the study. Though fake stories around a cure for COVID-19 lessened in this period, false claims that affected people emotionally increased, the study found. This is part of an overall trend where India is entering a phase in misinformation that has alarmingly gravitated to cultural elements that are more difficult to verify.
The continuing role of the credible news organisations working with the government, while employing leading practices in verification and discernment to tackle fake news, has its path clearly set out. Surely, the last word on this development has not yet been written. The response to minimising and marginalising fake news in information dissemination across India will be critical in the response to responsible behaviour, with tasks set out for the government, social media platforms, fact checkers, and individuals alike.