With the outbreak of COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, in India, an avalanche of misinformation and fake news related to the disease has widespread across social media, creating social disorder, panic and confusion among people. Misinformation and fake news on COVID-19 ranges from advising people on an unverified home remedy, the origin of the outbreak, suggesting people to use untested medicines, recommending unapproved diet options, spreading the rumour of how harmful it is to buy milk packets or consume poultry, and conniving fancy conspiracy theories on the pandemic being a biological warfare by China.
If one starts searching for fake news, the person will end up discovering thousands of articles on misinformation propagated on COVID-19 on the internet. Most of these fake news articles originate from Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which has over 400 million users in India, making it untraceable to find the source as the application provides end-to-end encryption. After the first case of COVID-19 in India was reported in January, social media got flooded with fake news on the disease, to which many people fell prey and started creating panic around themselves.
The number of fake news articles that India generates on a daily basis is beyond counting. However, it indicates that the country consumes fake news and misinformation more than any other country in the world. The reasons for such fake news are still unknown. Cybercrime experts and fact-checkers claim that few generate it for communal divide, creating social confusion and panic, while few generate these as they are jobless. It also comes into notice that few generate fake news because they want people to follow guidelines, but they exaggerate the message, making people fear the severe consequences.
One of the funniest piece of misinformation I came across is: “The diagnosis of coronavirus is known while sitting at home. Hold your breath for 50-seconds and if anyone passes it, they don’t have the disease.” While looking for the authenticity of this message, I called upon a family-friend doctor and he said, “It is not possible to tell if you have coronavirus or not based on how long you can hold your breath. These things are completely false and practising this without verifying might lead to complicated consequences later.”
People claim that drinking hot water or gargling with salt water will kill the virus in the throat and it cannot be incubated. However, a report published by BBC said, “There is no biological mechanism that would support the idea that you can just wash a respiratory virus down into your stomach and kill it.” Professor Trudie Lang at the University of Oxford said, “Infections such as the coronavirus enter the body via the respiratory tract when you breathe in. Some of them might go into your mouth, but even constantly drinking water isn’t going to prevent you from catching the virus. Nonetheless, drinking water and staying hydrated is generally a good medical advice.”
There is another piece of advice, such as consuming garlic, tulsi and turmeric will kill the virus. But these things will help in increasing immunity and not kill the virus. A WHO report says that garlic has some antimicrobial properties, but there is no evidence to indicate that garlic can protect people from coronavirus. If one sits to start finding fake news and misinformation on the internet, they will end up with thousand such articles, wasting their entire day.
Most of the fake news contains a mixture of correct information and data, making it difficult to spot the misinformation. Fake news and misinformation run on two circumstances; first, when the message claims to have a foolproof solution to the problem or the highest level of certainty, it is enough to be suspicious about; second, when the message is exaggerated and contains emotional, surprising and upsetting elements. This human interest angle is widely used to lure people in. If you come across any of these, be suspicious and verify!
There are a few rules you should abide by while finding the authenticity of the message or information you receive. These rules don’t just apply to the pandemic but also for future events:
If you receive such information on your WhatsApp or through any social media platform, do not trust it blindfolded. Chances are it might be fake. Always look for the source. Check the message on the internet, cross-check whether it has been published by at least a few prominent media houses. If not, then label it as fake!
If the source of the message claims to have originated from any media house or government agency, the important thing to check is the way of writing. A media house or any government agency will have their message written in flair English with no grammatical error. Fake news usually contains incorrect syntax with a lot of unnecessary punctuation, fancy words, and no capitalisation.
Most of the fake news contains a replicated social media account or website that looks very similar to that of the authentic one. One such example is the use of website www.primeministerofindia.com, which confuses people with www.pmindia.gov.in. Similarly, the mention of @NDTVNews is a mimic Twitter handle of NDTV News Feed @ndtvfeed.
Fake news will always put much emphasis on sharing. It will contain the word “share” at least twice. It will ask people for maximum sharing. Be sceptical if you come across any such message.
A simple reverse search on the internet will save you time. If you come across any government website or media house reporting on it, or if it has been mentioned by AltNews or Boom, then the news can be considered authentic. Twitter handle @PIBFactCheck is another useful tool for examining the authenticity of news released by the government.
There are a lot of websites that report news on COVID-19. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is the best source to fin out about the disease, tips on prevention, and getting advisory on the pandemic alongside, getting knowledge on the myths related to the disease. Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) is another credible source where you will know about the disease, as well as be able to track the accurate number of cases in India. Websites such as MyGov, Press Information Bureau and DD News will be at a better position to tell you on the outbreak.
At the State-level, the State Health Ministry website, website of the Directorate of Information & Public Relations, and State MyGov website can be checked to confirm the authenticity of a news piece. @COVIDNewsByMIB, twitter handle of the Government, conveys all the news related to COVID-19 in India. You can also follow authentic media houses, be it TV, print, digital or radio. But make sure you cross-verify with 3-4 other media houses.
Like everyone else, you might be a victim of incessant misinformation and fake news on your mobile. If you discover that the news is fake, the first thing you should do is inform the sender, most of them may not be aware of it. Educate them at your level, as well as inform in your family/friends WhatsApp group about the consequences of spreading fake news and misinformation. Ask them not to share if they receive any, and ask them to inform their family members/relatives about the same at their level as well.
Spread awareness in your vicinity and all social media groups. Inform how harmful misinformation is and how it creates a social divide, panic and confusion among people. If you wish to bust the message and make the public aware at large, pass the message to fact-checkers and ask them to verify the authenticity.
If you think the message will harm the public and disturb the law and order, report it to the police by dialing 100 or calling your nearest police station. Spreading awareness and educating your loved ones is the best vaccine to fight the “fakedemic” – a pandemic of fake news.
A tip shared by Harmeet Singh, ADGP, Assam Police mentioned,
We would request you steer clear of negative Social Media content. Engage yourselves in interesting & productive activities, both individually and in online groups. Share your experiences to motivate others.
We are always available. Reach out for any assistance. https://t.co/KdkioUpZoa
— Assam Police (@assampolice) April 2, 2020
He also said, “In all cases of using social media, #IndividualSocialResponsibility should always be the mantra.”
Don’t believe everything on the internet; fact-check, spread awareness and educate your loved ones, and above all, don’t spread fake news. Compulsorily follow the government advisory, stay safe, stay indoors. Let’s fight fake news whilst fighting COVID-19.