Amid the coronavirus pandemic, a fake news 'infodemic'

The recent attack in Indore against medical professionals was one example


In Taat Patti Bakhal area of Indore, two women doctors were injured when a team of health officials was pelted with stones while they were trying to trace a person who had come into contact with a COVID-19 patient earlier. A video of the incident had gone viral on social media. The incident occurred when the team of five was trying to find out the whereabouts of a suspected patient.

A woman doctor said they were rescued by police personnel. "The moment we started enquiring about that particular person' health, people started protesting and later some of them hurled stones. We were saved by police personnel," she said. Terming the incident as very unfortunate, Indore chief medical and health officer (CMHO) Dr Pravin Jadia said that the medical personnel were working to protect people from the coronavirus infection but they were pelted with stones. "Two women doctors suffered injuries on their legs in the incident. They somehow protected themselves by hiding inside the vehicle of tehsildar," the CMHO said.

The incident, reported The Indian Express, was sparked by fake WhatsApp videos claiming that healthy Muslims were being taken away and injected with the virus. A resident told the publication that they were suspicious of health workers after the videos started doing the rounds. According to Newslaundry, the video claimed that people from Muslim slums were being injected with corona positive blood, killed and later dumped.

This is just one incident of fake news that has been making the rounds throughout the pandemic, including ones that sparked fears of declaration of emergency. 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.

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.

Another was a video which claimed that Indonesian Muslims at a Salem mosque were licking utensils to "intentionally spread the novel coronavirus". The video was unrelated and misleading; what was shown instead was the Dawoodi Bohra community licking clean the utensils to ensure that not even a single bit of food was being wasted.

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 army.

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.

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."