JURIST Guest Columnist Shivani Singh, a second year B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University in Lucknow, India, discusses the ongoing spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and the need for governments and technology platforms to address it...
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to increase across the globe, crossing over the four million mark and killing more than 300,000 patients, a parallel pandemic of misinformation and fake news is spreading around, putting lives at risk. Many researchers have termed this so called storm of misinformation a “disinfodemic.” There is a growing concern because misinformation during such a pandemic can be dangerous and not only misleading.
The Need to Curb Fake News
Disinformation spreads like a wildfire, sparking panic among the public. Unchecked and false information not only causes havoc around the world, but also hampers the collective efforts of frontline workers (medical and police personnel) who are trying to make an impact in fighting the disease.
UNESCO has shown concern over the recent COVID-19 related disinformation by publishing two policy briefs that assess the COVID-19 disinfodemic of disinformation, fabricated truths, bogus websites, videos and images and studies their impact.
Medical officials engaged in screening in the Taat Patti Bakhal area in Indore had a close escape when a group of agitated locals of the area started stone pelting, prompting a large number of police personnel to be deployed in the area to gain control over the situation. However, no injury was caused. The incident was sparked when a whatsapp message went viral in the area claiming that the medical officials were injecting healthy Muslims with the virus and urged the people to boycott them. This was just one of the incidents followed by the chain of fake whatsapp messages. Amid the pandemic, security officers engaged in Jammu and Kashmir are facing a major challenge of fake documents which read like any genuine order passed by the administration. The administrative authorities have to continuously deny the fake orders being circulated on social media.
The Supreme Court of India in the recent case of Shri Alakh Alok Nath v. Union of India (2020) has expressed its concern over the exodus of migrant workers triggered due to spread of fake news causing panic and confusion. The Court ordered the government to set up a portal to disseminate accurate information regarding coronavirus. This is not the first time when the Supreme Court has recognized the problem of fake news. In 2019 in the case of Facebook v. Union of India (2019) bench comprising of Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Aniruddha Bose said that the misuse of social media has reached dangerous proportions and asked the government to devise guidelines to tackle this problem.
The World Economic Forum recognized the spread of fake news as one of the greatest threats to the hyper connected digital society we live in. There have been instances where such misinformation has provoked violence, distrust, confusion and discord. Hence, this demands an urgent need for fake news to be weeded out from sources of trusted and reliable news and information.
Steps Taken to Curb Fake News
Seeing the great amount of disinformation being circulated among the public, the WHO has added a separate “myth busters” section under the Advice for the Public column that refutes all the myths claiming that spraying or introducing bleach or other disinfectants into the body, drinking ethanol or hot weather or snow etc. will kill the virus. This practice is being followed by the Indian government who is showing a relevant link so that the public has access to true information about coronavirus.
A surge has been seen in false content ranging from treatment with disinfectants to photoshopped government orders warning about emergency, communal content, audio and video clips on social media platforms such as Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter and TikToks. It has become imperative for them to take necessary actions to curb such misinformation.
Whatsapp in partnership with the government has launched MyGov Corona Helpdesk on the app to provide prompt, reliable and official information on coronavirus. Within two weeks of its launch over 20,000,000 users were reported. TikTok introduced an enhanced in-app reporting system for its users to report any content which they believe to be deceptive and false by selecting a “misleading information” category within the app. The reported content is then sent to an internal task force and escalated to a third party fact checker. Instagram and Facebook banned ads selling masks and sanitizers claiming to be hundred percent safe against coronavirus to stop people exploiting the health emergency.
Seven companies came together in collaboration to combat the misinformation on their platforms. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Youtube and LinkedIn in a joint statement are said to be working closely in response to the pandemic.
The Need for Stronger Legal Provisions
As fake news is crawling all over the internet, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology issued an advisory to social media platforms to curb misinformation on coronavirus. The advisory was issued after taking into consideration panic fueled by fake news on social media platforms. According to the advisory such social media platforms are intermediaries under Section 2(1)(w) of Information Technology Act and were notified under Section 79 of the IT Act to remove any such misinformation and disseminate authentic information related to coronavirus on their platforms.
India does not have any special law to deal with ‘fake news’ and is therefore dealt under the current provisions of the Indian Penal Code of 1860 and the Disaster Management Act of 2005 (DMA). To date only the Maharashtra Government has passed “The Maharashtra COVID-19 Regulations, 2020″ to deal specifically with coronavirus. It prohibits persons, institutions or organizations from disseminating any information related to coronavirus without ascertaining facts and prior clearance from the relevant health authorities in order to tackle the spread of misinformation.
The provision of Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 deals with “circulation of false alarm or warning as to the severity or magnitude, leading to panic.” It is punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year with fine. Section 54 of the DMA deals specifically with the time of disaster. But the ambit and impact of fake news and the need to curb such misinformation is beyond that.
Section 505(1)(b) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 is comparatively extensive and provides a wider canvas to deal with the problem. The section prohibits the publication or circulation of any false content likely to cause “fear or alarm to the public…whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against…public trainquility.” Under this the convict can be punished with a maximum imprisonment of six years and a fine. But the proviso states that if the statement is made under good faith or believed to be true, it won’t amount to an offence.
In the current scenario Section 54 of the DMA and Section 505(1)(b) of the IPC can be used to deter many cases. Though the necessity for legal provisions dealing specifically with misinformation becomes more crucial now than ever before.
While our front line workers are dealing with the first wave of the pandemic by treating those who are infected, the secondary pandemic that is the spread of misinformation has to be dealt with by all, starting with the public. Providing correct information is only half of the steps required. Stopping fake news from spreading among the public is the greater step to be taken. As social media becomes deeply instilled in our day-to-day lives, this calls for a joint effort by both policy makers and technology pioneers to mitigate the adverse impact of this disinfodemic and a careful balance has to be struck between regulations and individual freedoms.
For more on COVID-19, see our special coverage.
Shivani Singh is a second year B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University in Lucknow, India.
Suggested citation: Shivani Singh, “Disinfodemic” – The Other Pandemic Amid COVID-19, JURIST – Student Commentary, May 18, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/shivani-singh-disinfodemic-covid19/.
This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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