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Fighting the Virus of Fake News
WhatsApp Nation

Fake News
© Goethe-Institut

Fake news is a global menace, but incidents of violence and lynching triggered by fake news and rumours are common on WhatsApp in India, one of the messaging platforms with the biggest market of over 400 million active users. Like the Mumbai Police, handles of law enforcement and other government agencies have been proactive in responding to fake news and debunking misinformation instantly. Authorities say that while stricter regulation and crackdown is needed, it is people who will have to self-regulate and stop the spread of fake news.

By Chaitanya Marpakwar

It was April 2020, and still early in India’s fight against Covid-19. At the same time, authorities were bracing themselves for an unexpected surge in fake news and hate speech that would become as dangerous and deadly as the virus itself.
Since then, just like the spread of Covid-19 cases, instances of fake news have also seen a spike on social media and messaging platforms across India. Many of these messages and videos are laced with hate speech and a communal spin that have had deadly consequences. 


Just days after Uddhav Thackeray, Chief Minister of the Indian state of Maharashtra, issued a warning against the spread of fake news, a mob of over 300 villagers grew violent and killed three men who were passing by the village of Palghar near Mumbai while on their way to attending a funeral. Fake messages claiming that child kidnappers and dacoits were on the prowl in various villages in the town were doing the rounds among villagers, days before the lynching. These WhatsApp messages asked residents to stay alert and led villagers to form vigilante or watch groups to patrol the streets at night. The police arrested over 100 people and 9 minors. Investigations later revealed that the attacks were prompted by rumours on Whatsapp that organ-harvesting gangs, child lifters and thieves were operating in these areas at night. 

both true and false

In India, almost everyone uses WhatsApp: employers use it for communicating with employees, teachers with students, friends with each other, and even government officials with journalists. But it also means that news, both true and false, can spread fast.
Soon after the Palghar lynching, videos of the incident were amplified on social media with an insinuation that it was communally motivated, and those who lynched were members of the Muslim community. As the Palghar incident began taking a communal tinge, Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh shared the list of 101 people taken into custody in connection with the lynching, on Twitter. None of them was Muslim. This mob lynching incident is a perfect example of how WhatsApp forwards can become a deadly cocktail of fake news, hate speech, lynching and eventually lead to communal tension.

WhatsApp is the easiest application to get. It is low on data and high on connectivity and it is very intimate. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, where everyone can see what you post, there is a lot of privacy."

Jency Jacob

As soon as India reported its first Covid-19 case in January 2020, the country’s social media space suddenly experienced a massive spike in all kinds of information in the form of messages, reports and videos about Covid-19.  Fake news disguised as ‘medical advice,’ such as increasing Vitamin C intake and ingesting hot lemon water along with fake voice notes attributed to a prominent doctor was shared over 5,000 times on Facebook and Twitter.

panic through fake news

Other viral messages even created panic! In May, a message about a military lockdown in two cities of Mumbai and Pune found its way into WhatsApp groups and social media platforms. As a result, many people rushed out to stock up. This time, the Mumbai police were quick to respond. “The attached message is fake but being widely circulated. If it reaches you, break the chain & do not forward. All essential supplies will be available & movement permitted only as per lockdown guidelines. #FakeMessageAlert” the Mumbai Police tweeted. Soon, like most of the times, screenshots of the Mumbai Police tweet were sent out on WhatsApp by journalists across different groups.
Jency Jacob, Managing Editor of fact-checking portal Boom, explains that WhatsApp remains the hub of fake news in India. “WhatsApp is the easiest application to get. It is low on data and high on connectivity and it is very intimate. It has a high utility. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, where everyone can see what you post, there is a lot of privacy, so people just send across anything. Suddenly people from rural areas in particular, are inundated with information. They tend to believe whatever is sent to them and the result is mobs or lynching,” Jacob says. Jacob says that at Boom, they routinely bust close to a dozen fake WhatsApp rumours each day.
WhatsApp has over 2 billion users worldwide, with over 200 million in India alone.
© Goethe-Institut
WhatsApp has over 2 billion users worldwide, with over 200 million in India alone.

In another incident, a regional television news channel aired fake information about special trains being run for migrant labourers. Within hours, thousands of migrant labourers gathered outside a railway station in Mumbai hoping to catch trains back to their villages, forcing the police to use sticks to disperse them. A riot-like situation was avoided, but only barely. The police soon identified over 30 accounts on various social media platforms that were involved in disseminating false information about the resumption of train services. 
In a bid to curb the flow of misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic, WhatsApp announced a new limit on forwarded messages where a WhatsApp user can forward such messages to only one person at a time. This limit kicks in once a message has been previously forwarded five times or more.

Regulation versus free speech

Supreme Court Judge, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, while talking on the topic ‘Fake News and Misinformation’ at an online lecture series made a case for individual discretion regarding the sharing of fake news. “Any regulation of social media may impinge on free speech and the right to privacy. The struggle is to regulate social media without affecting free speech, so it is everybody’s responsibility to see that content is verified before it is sent.” “There are a lot of messages about Covid-19 including its ‘remedies’, its origin, people who are 'furthering the spread of the virus’ and so on. These messages can take religious and racial undertones,” the Supreme Court Judge warned. “When the press is writing, they are accountable... they write with a certain sense of responsibility. But others may not have anything at stake and no accountability...” Kaul said. 
As India battles Covid-19, it is also fighting the virus of fake news and hate speech. Vaccines for both are difficult, but important to find.