Misinformation, fake news spark India coronavirus fears
By Kunal Purohit
Published: 10 March, 2020
A wave of misinformation and rumour on COVID-19 floods phones, forcing the government to issue an advisory.
People at a pharmacy in New Delhi wearing protective masks [EPA]
But beyond these, familiar foes are rearing their heads: misinformation and fake news.
Through its vast social media networks, a wave of inaccuracy is spreading on coronavirus, which causes an illness known as COVID-19.
From offering unverified home remedies to tackle the virus, to floating fake advisories asking people to avoid foods such as ice cream and chicken, and sharing conspiracy theories, Indians' phones are being flooded with misinformation.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was forced to appeal to citizens, asking them to not heed to rumours surrounding COVID-19.
The country's stock exchange plunged to its lowest level since 2010 amid fears of the disease.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, misinformation, especially through WhatsApp, has risen in India [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
Biggest market for WhatsApp
The scale of the country's social media usage complicates the fight against misinformation.
India is the biggest market for the Facebook-owned messaging application, WhatsApp, with more than 400 million users in a country which had 468 million smartphones in 2017.
Dozens of people have been killed in public lynchings by angry crowds during the past four years over WhatsApp rumours they were child kidnappers.
Since the coronavirus outbreak last December in China, misinformation, especially through WhatsApp, has risen, says Shachi Sutaria, a fact checker focused on science and health, with Boom, one of India's leading fact-checking websites.
"Normally, we don't see such high levels of misinformation around health issues in India. Earlier, we would get two to three messages a week on health issues that we would fact check. Now, we get up to five to six messages every day, much of it on coronavirus."
An alleged UNICEF advisory asked people to avoid ice creams and other cold foods [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
One message, claiming to be an advisory from UNICEF, debunked last week, asks people to avoid ice creams and other cold foods and recommends frequent washing of clothes because "corona virus when it falls on the fabric remains nine hours (sic)".
Another recommends heavy Vitamin C intake, yet another message lists a do-it-yourself (DIY) detection test for the virus.
A similar message warns people to "not hold your thirst because once your membrane in your throat is dried, the virus will invade into your body within 10 minutes."
Another more sinister type of viral message lists large Hindu congregations and takes pride that they have never been sources of epidemics, alleging that "weirdest eating habits of some of the countries should be banned (sic)," and ending with extolling the virtues of Hinduism.
On WhatsApp, numerous videos are circulating that purportedly show scenes from China - from videos of men being shot at, to scenes of bodies lying on streets - to show the impact of coronavirus.
Many of these videos have been debunked by fact-checking agencies to be old videos, mock drills and even scenes from movies.
Searching for answers in videos
The panic over the spread of COVID-19 has meant that Indians are also searching for answers on YouTube, which has more than 265 million monthly active users in India.
One of the most popular videos about the spread of the coronavirus comes from a small Indian city, 270km from New Delhi.
In Bareilly with a population of nearly one million, a team of people is circulating viral videos on the spread of the virus, with healthy doses of unverified information and conspiracy theories.
Prajapati News, a YouTube channel with over 6.21 million subscribers, has put out various six-minute videos with clickbait headlines and graphic image thumbnails.
One explainer, This is Where the Coronavirus Came From, viewed 4.7 million times, says the virus spreads through seafood.
Another video the channel has uploaded alleges the virus leaked from a Chinese government lab where it was being created to target rival nations. The video has been viewed more than 765,000 times.
Talking to Al Jazeera, its founder Vishal Prajapati says the channel has been careful about not spreading misinformation and insists that his information is well-referenced.
"I saw an English news clip and it looked like a Chinese news channel where they said this, so I thought it would be interesting for an Indian audience."
Prajapati's videos are helping him draw in more subscribers - he says his subscriber count is increasing by more than 10,000 daily.
PM Modi was forced to appeal to citizens, asking them to not heed to rumours surrounding COVID-19 [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
The Modi government's communication about the virus has been far from scientifically rigorous.
Elected representatives from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have offered bizarre cures - one said cow urine and cow dung could be cures, while yet another distributed cloves "energised by mantras," according to reports.
The government's advisory, recommending herbs and homeopathy medicines as cures, has been criticised by fact checkers.
This, coupled with the dangerous levels of misinformation, has meant that people are believing many of these falsities.
Boom, the fact-checking website, had reported the case of a man in southern India who killed himself after he saw numerous videos of coronavirus and ended up believing that he had contracted it.
"The problem with fake news is that its virality is way faster than its debunking. Often, despite debunking a piece of fake news, we see that the same claim has emerged again," says Sutaria, the fact checker from Boom.
India's Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan was unavailable for comment, despite repeated attempts.
But on Monday, Dr Vardhan asked states to set up "rapid action" teams as around 3,000 people were placed under surveillance.
A senior health ministry official, not wishing to be named, told Al Jazeera that the government would send text messages to citizens with verified advisories to counteract misinformation.
The central government has also ordered telecom companies to make an audio clip explaining coronavirus as a caller tune for mobile phone users, as it fights misinformation.