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Misinformation and COVID-19: An analysis

May 12, 2020

By Vibhuti Vasisth and Shubhankar Shashikant

In the current uncertain times of a global pandemic, anything that adds deliberate fuel to such uncertainties must be curbed at all costs. Misinformation or disinformation when the world is put under a lockdown has become fairly common and is causing severe damage to the public health and welfare, so much so that it is being dubbed and recognised as an “Infodemic” globally.

International bodies such as the UN educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and World Health Organisation (WHO) are vehemently talking about the risks arising by and from the spread of fake news concerning coronavirus. Fake news and misinformation surrounding coronavirus has even led the WHO to have a separate online section, “Myth Busters”, added to its online coronavirus advice pages.[1]

Due to the scale of the problem, many people have tried to capitalize on the pandemic for various different agendas which are politically, personally or economically motivated. However, the alarming finding is that most people who are spreading such misinformation are not doing so maliciously or knowingly, much like the spread of the virus that the world is currently dealing with.

Why is misinformation amid COVID-19 an issue?

As the COVID-19 pathogen is a new strain of virus, there is a big information gap with respect to it. This has in-turn created a global need for researched and documented content on the novel virus but at the same time has also created an opportunity for people to fill this void with false information. With the overwhelming amount of content that has flooded media platforms regarding the same and continues to expand by the minute, the line distinguishing the credible from the false is becoming ever more blurred.

The crux of the issue with circulation of false information in such dire times can be understood in lines of two most probable negative and far reaching consequences; firstly any false and widely circulated information can trigger mass panic, hysteria and adversely impact individual health and wellness. For example, if a rumour is spread referring a certain area of a city is no longer under lockdown, people of that area may come out in bulk and be at risk of contracting the COVID-19 disease. Secondly any false information that defames or aggravates a certain group of the society against an individual or community, people may resort to uncivilized behaviour putting themselves and others at risk.

Guidelines to tackle misinformation

In this current pandemic, India has faced both the negative consequences of the simultaneous ‘infodemic’ that is spreading at a rate which puts the pandemic to shame. With instances of such false information leading to groups of people assembling in large gatherings in spite of the lockdown and as recently as a few days back leading to four youths from Ahmedabad, Gujarat getting arrested on spreading false information about the health and well-being of the country’s Home Minister, Mr. Amit Shah.[2] In response to such instances, many government bodies have taken cognizance of the issue and aimed at tackling the same through a shift in their policies for example, Bureau of Police Research and Development functioning under the Ministry of Home Affairs have released guidelines for law enforcement agencies on how to tackle false information which includes provisions of fact checking and checking for fabrication of images and videos before their circulation and also aims to identify various sources and vectors of disinformation.

In light of the above, there is a clear issue that needs to be addressed which is “How to stop the spread of dubious and false information?”. The answer may seem simple at first, as one may propose criminalising such acts, but considering the numerous factors with relation to the spread, one may find that one answer does not throw a blanket over the whole issue.

What is misinformation?

Misinformation is nothing but information that does not find its basis in fact and is mostly spread with the intention of misleading the consumer of such information. Misinformation pertaining to COVID-19 is seen to have two major impacts on a person’s life that makes it as dangerous as the virus itself:

  1. Misinformation about cures and medications which puts the life of people at risk as a person may consume un-prescribed medications in an attempt to cure or avoid the virus, which in reality may be detrimental to the person, to say the least. This may also be done to promote medicines by a specific manufacturer to make profit out of this humanitarian crisis;
  2. Misinformation about the spread of the virus which may make a person or a group of persons to take strict and unlawful action against someone else on the pretext of that (mis)information. This not only results in social bias, but also in negative social conditioning.

Steps being taken by global organisations to curb misinformation

However, in the era of instantaneous information access and spread, owing to the technological advancements in the field of communication, how can one curb the range of such information and simultaneously discredit the dubious content? The answer is not straightforward or simple. However, the first step towards tackling this ‘infodemic’ has been taken by many international organisations and various governments have released policies that prohibit the spread of ‘fake news’ and misinformation.

UNESCO is specifically urging the government to keep the ambit of such restriction on information imposed only for fake news and misinformation related to the current pandemic. Further stating that that governments must not impose any such restrictions that may be construed as restriction on freedom of expression that can harm the role of an independent press. It also places emphasis on the positive role that media can play in the current circumstances including debunking of generally accepted myths by the population of a country and act as an essential service.

How are social media platforms attempting to curb the spread of misinformation?

A welcome step to tackle this issue was taken by social media platform(s) through their policy on coronavirus, which is yet to meet its full potential. However, a few notable policy changes that deal with the spread of misinformation are mentioned here under:

Facebook: In a new move, Facebook has released an active stance on the ‘harmful’ misinformation about the coronavirus in their policy shift. The term ‘harmful information’, as per the policy, pertains to the misinformation likely to cause or contribute to any “imminent physical harm”. This mostly pertains to promotion of false cures or undermining of the actual ones, such as spreading misinformation about the effectiveness of social distancing.

The Facebook fact check algorithm will identify any information posted about coronavirus. If the information adheres to information as mentioned in the policy, a message/ disclaimer would be sent to every person who was exposed to such information or who had interacted with such information. The message would disclaim the false information as well as have the link attached to the “mythbuster” section of WHO online pages on coronavirus.

The policy is yet to take effect and would extend to users who have made the post (containing the misinformation), reacted to the post and/or shared the post.[3]

Other platforms: Other social media giants such as Twitter and Instagram have also released their policies and statements for dealing with misinformation in March, 2020. One common move by all social media platforms to curb the spread of misinformation is to provide their own updates on coronavirus to their user base.

Are there any policies/ notifications issued by the Indian Government so as to control the spread of misinformation?

India has been taking all the necessary precautions to transit smoothly out of the current crisis and have been on the forefront of checking and controlling the spread of misinformation.

One of the very first government notifications in this regard came out with a policy stating that, an entity publishing any news/information on coronavirus, would be required to obtain prior permission from the healthcare ministry before such news/information can be published. This notification came out on 12th March, 2020 i.e. two weeks before the lockdown started. [4]

Furthermore, the government can be credited in being legally proactive to impose a ban on misinformation being spread or that may be spread by the media. This became evident when the Government of India sought directions from the Supreme Court of India on March 31, 2020, stating that no media outlet shall publish, print or telecast any news on the Novel Coronavirus before ascertaining such facts from the mechanism provided by the government.[5] The government had submitted that though creating panic is a criminal offence prescribed under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, necessary directions from the Apex Court would further protect the nation from any possible consequences which may result from a false alarm which has the potential to create panic and chaos amongst the citizens.

In this regard, an order by the Hon’ble Court stated that the Court has no intention to interfere with free discussions, however, the media is directed to refer and publish only the “official version” of the developments regarding the coronavirus outbreak. This implies that no speculative findings should be propagated.

The Court further directed that “A daily bulletin by the Government of India through all media avenues including social media and its forums to clear the doubts of people would be made active within a period of 24 hours, as submitted by the Solicitor General of India.”

Apart from the order mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, many other laws have already been in place to manage the spread of misinformation in India such as the IT Act, 2000, and the Disaster Management Act, 2005. However, legal reiteration only strengthens these laws and acts as an added source of awareness.

The key to curbing the current “infodemic”, as is clearly understood and acted upon by international and national organizations and entities alike, is not to restrict misinformation and fake news per se as that can be a tedious task, considering the global outreach afforded to anyone with basic gadgets and an internet connection, but the key to curb the spread is by countering it with credible and accurate information which is easily accessible and more readily available than any other fake/ false information.

As responsible citizens, in this time of an unparalleled global crisis, we must adhere to the national policies which aim at curbing the spread and effect of the pandemic and each of us must vow to not create any unnecessary panic directly or indirectly by spreading unchecked and unauthenticated information, no matter how well-intentioned the act may be.

Related Posts

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Defamation on Social Media- What can you do about it?

Analysis of the Information Technology [Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules] 2018

[1] https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061592

[2] https://theprint.in/india/four-detained-in-gujarat-for-spreading-rumors-about-amit-shahs-health/418052/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/16/coronavirus-facebook-misinformation-warning

[4] https://main.sci.gov.in/pdf/cir/covid19_14032020.pdf (Page 3)

[5] Writ Petition(s)(Civil) No(s).468/2020

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