Coronavirus: Fear factor combined with fake news creates new ‘infodemic’ on social media

As India battles the deadly coronavirus pandemic, a fake news ‘infodemic’ is also spreading on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms with numerous false claims

Photo Courtesy: social media
Photo Courtesy: social media
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PTI

As India battles the deadly coronavirus pandemic, a fake news 'infodemic' is also spreading on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms with numerous false claims, including about an impending emergency declaration and an extension of the lockdown period.

While official agencies and several private fact-checkers kept on promptly debunking the fake news, the full-hoaxes and half-truths continued unabated, including by some fraudsters trying to mint some easy money by circulating fake bank account details for contributions to the government relief funds.

A lot many also fell prey to an "early April Fool" prank on Monday wherein a document was circulated on social media, disguising itself as a government announcement about an extension of lockdown beyond the 21-day period.

The Indian Army also had to debunk fake news about an impending emergency declaration in April.

"Fake and malicious messages are circulating on social media about likely declaration of emergency in mid April and employment of Indian Army, Veterans, NCC and NSS to assist the civil administration. It is clarified that this is absolutely fake," the Army's Additional Directorate General of Public Information tweeted.

The government also debunked rumours about plans for extending the ongoing 21-day lockdown period, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 to fight the coronavirus crisis.

The clarification by Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba came after hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers undertook long journeys from major urban centres on foot to their homes in the last five days, reflecting their struggle for survival due to job losses following the lockdown.

In a tweet, the government's Press Information Bureau said: "There are rumours & media reports, claiming that the Government will extend the #Lockdown21 when it expires. The Cabinet Secretary has denied these reports, and stated that they are baseless."

PIB's Fact Check Twitter handle also asked people to "be cautious of fake account details circulating on the pretext of PM CARES Fund".

Delhi police's cybercrime unit had on Sunday detected a fake Unified Payments Interface (UPI) ID created with a motive to cheat donors of the newly launched PM CARES Fund to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

Anyesh Roy, DCP (cybercrime) said in a tweet that the fake UPI was created with the ID pmcare@sbi, which is similar to the correct ID pmcares@sbi.

The State Bank of India has also been briefed about the fake ID and the bank has blocked it, a police official said.

The matter is under investigation and efforts are being made to identify the accused, he said.

Another 'fake news' debunked by the authorities included a message doing the rounds that the Home Ministry has decided to make it a punishable offence if anyone posts anything related to the coronavirus on social media.

There are also a number of other such misinformation being circulated including about the COVID-19 treatment and on ways to avoid getting infected from the deadly coronavirus.

"There is no scientific evidence to prove that inhaling hot water steam kills #Coronavirus. Remember: Respiratory hygiene, social distancing and washing hands are effective measures to prevent #Covid19 Let's spread facts, not fear and contribute to #IndiaFightsCoronavirus," PIB Fact Check tweeted.

Among private fact-checkers, Boom FactCheck tweeted that a "misleading" infographic has been shared thousands of times in multiple Facebook posts with a nine-day timeline of the symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

It also debunked another "fake" message claiming several areas in Mumbai, including Mohammed Ali Road, having been blacklisted and put under control of the arm

Another misleading message claimed that a state government in India has recommended that the juice of bitter gourd, a vegetable often used in traditional medicine, is an effective treatment for the novel coronavirus. This one has also been found to be false.

On social media, several people including some senior journalists, fell prey to an old prank video from Jakarata, which went viral after being presented this time as being from Goa and as an "innovative way to make people stay indoors".

Fact checker SM Hoax Slayer said, "A Prank video is viral, tweeted by few media houses and journalists claimed to be recent and from Goa. It shows a man wearing a ghost looking suit jumping suddenly in front to a motorcycle on a bridge because of which the rider gets afraid, turns around and leave and the pillion rider climbs the bridge whom the prankster follow."

The fact-checking website found that the prank video was neither from Goa, nor related to the lockdown or the coronavirus outbreak at all.

The video was found to be almost a year old from May 2019 and it originated from Jakarta, Indonesia. After being corrected by SMHoaxSlayer, some people and organisations tweeted a correction in reply to their wrong tweet, while few others deleted the original tweet.

Fact-cheking website AltNews debunked a viral audio clip, presented as a conversation between two persons, with one of them claiming that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has asked India to extend the lockdown from April 15 to June 15. AltNews said its investigation found the claim to be totally fake.

Interestingly, the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had said in February itself, "We are not just fighting an epidemic; we are fighting an infodemic."

Several other countries are also dealing with an increased flow of fake news relating to the coronavirus.

The UK has set up a rapid response unit within the Cabinet Office which is working with social media firms to remove fake news and harmful content. The UK's anti-fake news unit is also dealing with up to 10 false coronavirus articles a day.

On Sunday, the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Ruchi Ghanashyam, also appealed to Indian citizens stranded in the country due to the coronavirus pandemic to beware of fake news doing the rounds about Air India evacuation flights planned next week.

Few days ago, another viral message had re-surfaced about all calls getting recorded and platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter being monitored with the start of the lockdown period, but it was found to be fake.

Boom FactCheck found that the viral message has been doing the rounds on social media since as far back as 2017. It also found the message to be referring to one 'Ministry of Internal Regulation', which does not exit in India.

Police in various parts of the country has also begun taking action in such cases.

In Kolkata, a woman was arrested on Monday for allegedly sharing fake information pertaining to COVID-19 on WhatsApp. She had apparently claimed in her post that 15 people have tested positive for novel coronavirus in New Alipore area of the city and that the state government was suppressing the information.

An officer said the Kolkata Police has also been keeping any eye on social media to prevent circulation of fake news.

In Himachal Pradesh, a journalist has been booked for reportedly spreading fake news regarding plying of buses amid the lockdown.

A 30-year-old man was arrested in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh on Sunday for uploading a fake and alarmist Facebook post in the name of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in connection with the lockdown, according to the police.

Similar arrests have been made in Mizoram and some other parts of the country as well, while Maharashtra Police's cyber unit has registered 36 FIRs across the state against those spreading fake news about coronavirus on social media.

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