COVID-19 Pandemic: Rumpus of Fake News and Role of WhatsApp In Its Ramifications

COVID-19 Pandemic: Rumpus of Fake News and Role of WhatsApp In Its Ramifications

Introduction

Fake news in this Covid-19 pandemic year of 2020 is an “oxymoron” that undermines the credibility of information which does truly meet the threshold of verifiability and the public interest which is real news, including sensationalizing and exaggerating it. According to Cambridge Dictionary, the term ‘fake news is defined as “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke.”[1]

India though having various enactments to deal with fake news but lacks in enforcement due to the evolving nature of fundamental rights under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution especially in the era of social media and its wide platform guaranteeing freedom of expression.

Creation of Fake News:

There are three aspects of fake news defined by UNESCO publication,

  1. Disinformation: Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization, or country.
  2. Misinformation: Information that is false but not created to cause harm.
  3. Mal-information: Information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, social group, organization, or country.[2]

India has been stated to hold the largest market of Whatsapp as a huge number of users are from India, leading to disseminating unverified thoughts between the common public without knowledge and awareness.[3] By providing low-cost texting, multimedia messaging, community chats, fast-forwarding to multiple users, and other multimedia content, SMS was disrupted.

The “first-mover advantage” prodigy faced in India by the company resulted in accumulating social influence even after other apps started offering similar services.[4] With huge social connections, it created a place to share various kinds of information maintaining privacy and finally degrading the authenticity of particulars passed.

Misinformation like producing noise can kill coronavirus was spread during the ‘Janta curfew’ when PM Narendra Modi requested to ring bells and clap for the warriors of this horrendous period of epidemic. But people including some politicians twisted this idea by adding an angle of religious pseudoism that the wavelength of sound produced through this act can kill the coronavirus.

These people broke the protocol of social distancing and took that moment as an opportunity to celebrate by gathering on roads to ring bells and dance. Other fake news disseminated included how drinking cow urine, sitting in the sun for 15 minutes, consuming Vitamin C tablets can save our lives from Covid-19. Another claim ridiculed and clarified by the WHO was by elucidating, ‘Drinking alcohol does not protect against Covid-19’.[5]

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Implementing Law and Order

“During the lockdown period, India’s dependence on the foreign communication network is a matter of national concern. We will come out from the current crisis of coronavirus, but if social media companies’ patronage of fake news virus is not stopped, then it may start a new era of data colonialism in India,” said Virag Gupta, a Supreme Court lawyer.[6]

In the face of the implementation of laws, various State governments and police officials are just using obsolete provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and Disaster Management Act, 2005 to control the menace of fake news, despite having contemporary fitting laws like IT Act and IPC to tackle misinformation. There is no specific provision in Indian Law that specifically deals with fake news. However, certain forms of speech may be relevant to fake news and may apply to online or social media content.[7]

The circular by the Ministry of Home Affairs mentioned the applicability of various provisions dealing with punishment for false warnings around a disaster leading to panic namely, Section 54 of the DMA, 2005[8], Sections 505[9] and 188[10] of the IPC and Section 3 of the EDA[11], 1897, using which, several people have been arrested across States, though criticized by many citizens for lack of efficient execution as promised by the State.[12]

The Information Technology Act, 2000[13] and The Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines), 2011[14] has established limited immunity for social media and other internet companies for any illegal content posted by the third parties and outline the due diligence to be observed by intermediary companies for removing such content.

Moreover, the Indian government has issued a notice to companies like Google and all the social media companies to come up with some special and authentic measures to curb fake news. For instance, the Indian government has launched a WhatsApp chatbot named ‘MyGov Corona Helpdesk’ to address consumer questions about the coronavirus pandemic and to quell speculation.[15]

There is active work against the spread of any kind of rumors on social media in the Covid-19 period by the Mumbai police, banning derogatory, discriminatory, and confusing communications that jeopardize public health or safety or the peace of the public. The official also revealed the designated Group Admin’s liability in the chaos created through misleading information.[16]

Constitutionality and Unconstitutionality of Fake News

Article 19(1)(a)[17] of the Indian Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression with exceptions of “reasonable restrictions” under Article 19(2)[18] with the view to protect the nation’s sovereignty, integrity, security and to maintain public order, decency, morality.

Although press freedom is not specifically included in Article 19(1)(a), it is still an integral part of it securing the liberty to pass inevitable information to the public, forming a decisive body in the smooth working of many institutions and the State. But the most crucial aspect is to prevent defamation or incitement to an offense due to the hatred or blind trust towards certain groups or the irrelevant and legal objectionable information distributed by any information distributive body.

The Government though put its claim of trying hard to curb the widespread of fake news but its extensive and expansive nature makes it a tough challenge.

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Resolving problems

There are also reported instances of grapple and prejudice faced by some journalists regarding access and data accountability through the government in these times like shorter press briefings, selective access, reluctance to share information, and lack of accountability. According to Newslaundary, “On 1st April 2020, according to a reporter who is part of the Press Information Bureau’s WhatsApp group, a message was posted that only reporters from ANI and Doordarshan could attend the briefing. Doordarshan is run by the state, and ANI isn’t exactly known for its independence.”[19]

With this, there is also no information media and public address by Dr. Harshvardhan, who is the Union Health Minister or other Cabinet minister like Home minister Mr. Amit Shah. This can be the leading cause of frenzied misleading information flowing into the country by non-accredited people in the thirst of equal participation in such degrading times leading to the encouragement of sources like WhatsApp, with no authentic source to correct it. Hence, the strict focus should be equally on different platforms of media by the State authorities.

There are prominent newspapers or magazines in the distribution of bona fide information and a messiah to avoid the assimilation of fake news from WhatsApp. But it is restricted by continued disruption in the distribution of newspapers at various regions in India due to lockdown and Corona stigma, even when they have been categorized as an ‘essential service’ and the act of disbanding its circulation is an offense under the Essential Services Maintenance Act.

There is no accountability in the spread of the virus through it,[20] still avoiding its accessibility at expense of credible news. The government has to ensure citizens’ freedom of speech by acknowledging their right to obtain genuine and non-forged information.

Countries like Singapore, Germany, France, and Russia worked efficiently to curb the spread of fake news on social media by strictly monitoring those platforms, implementing heavy penalties on the offenders, removing malicious information of any kind by the government.[21]

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Conclusion

The need of the hour is a cocktail of tougher law, enforcement agencies, and an awareness campaign through constant messaging and the promotion and mediation of cyber manners. Actions taken still can’t match the pace at which people post and forward fake posts, hence a better optimum track system needs to be set up by the government which can evade a little privacy but in good faith it is legal.

It is a time for WhatsApp and other similar platforms to analyze more closely to professional standards and ethics, to ensure the internal check over fully dependent on the external check, and to avoid information that may interest some of the public but which is not in the public interest or cause havoc about the disease.

Most importantly an efficient source to make people aware of widespread negative connotations that can lead to consequences should be built because awareness is the first and last key for developing countries like India, and this can be done by the Government with the help of various researchers and NGOs for better implementing and awareness strategies.

 

This is a co-authored article written by Shubhangi Gehlot and Sahil Panchal,  3rd-year law students of  B.A.LL.B.(Hons.) from The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda

 

[1] Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus, Cambridge University Press, (May. 28, 2020, 04:00

PM), https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fake-news.

[2] Cherilyn Ireton & Julie Posetti, Journalism, Fake News & Disinformation, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (May. 26, 2020, 06.10 PM), https://en.unesco.org/fightfakenews.

[3] Prasid Banerjee, Whatsapp announces 2 billion users worldwide, Live Mint, (May. 18, 2020, 03:40 PM), https://www.livemint.com/technology/tech-news/whatsapp-announces-2-billion-users-worldwide11581516342061.html.

[4] Church, Karen & Oliveira, Rodrigo, What’s up with WhatsApp? Comparing mobile instant messaging behaviors with traditional SMS, In Proceedings of the 15th international conference on Human-computer interaction with mobile devices and services, 352-361, 2013, August.

[5] Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Myth busters, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters

[6] Saumya Tewari, Covid-19: Social media platforms fight fake news under pressure from government, Live Mint, (April 14, 2020, 12:10 PM), https://www.livemint.com/industry/media/covid-19-social-media-platforms-fight-fake-news-under-pressure-from-government-11586843895979.html

[7] Tariq Ahmed, Government Responses to Disinformation on Social Media Platforms : India, Library of Congress, (July 24, 2020), https://www.loc.gov/law/help/social-media-disinformation/india.php

[8] The Disaster Management Act, 2005, No. 53, Act of Parliament, 2005 (India)

[9] The India Penal Code, 1860, No. 45, Act of Parliament, 1860 (India)

[10] The India Penal Code, 1860, No. 45, Act of Parliament, 1860 (India)

[11] The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897, No. 3, Act of Parliament, 1897 (India)

[12] Subimal Bhattacharjee, Fighting fake news amidst Covid-19, The Hindu Business Line, (April 02, 2020), https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/fighting-fake-news-during-covid-19/article31233348.ece.

[13] The Information Technology Act, 2000, No. 21, Act of Parliament, 2000 (India)

[14] The Gazette of India, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (Department of Information Technology), No. 11(3)/2011, http://meity.gov.in/sites/upload_files/dit/files/GSR314E_10511(1).pdf

[15] Maktub, Fake news in India – A Fact Check! – (Fight Against False Information), You News, (June 22, 2020), https://www.younews.in/news/fake-news-in-india-%E2%80%93-a-fact-check-fight-against-false-information

[16] Mumbai police cracks whip on social media, Group Admins, Outlook India, (April 10, 2020, 8:56 PM),  https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/mumbai-police-cracks-whip-on-social-media-group-admins/1798467

[17] INDIAN CONST. art. 19, cl. 1 (a).

[18] INDIAN CONST. art. 19, cl. 2.

[19] Ayan Sharma,  No answers, no access, no accountability: Journalists struggle to get information from the government as Covid-19 crisis worsens, News Laundry, (4 April 2020), https://www.newslaundry.com/2020/04/04/no-answers-no-access-no-accountability-journalists-struggle-to-get-information-from-the-government-as-covid-19-crisis-worsens

[20] Sagar Kulkarni, Newspapers don’t spread coronavirus: Health Experts, Deccan Herald, (March 24, 2020, 23:37 PM), https://www.deccanherald.com/national/newspapers-dont-spread-coronavirus-health-experts-817243.html

[21] Mansi Jaswal, From Singapore to France: These countries have created laws to fight fake news, Business Today, (May 10, 2019, 10:58), https://www.businesstoday.in/current/world/fake-news-fake-news-law-singapore-fake-news-law-countries-that-have-fake-news-law-/story/345144.html

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