How fake news is spread in India

Fight against the fake news virus
WhatsApp Nation

False news is a global threat. In India, cases of violence and lynching fueled by fake news and rumors on WhatsApp are commonplace. The instant messaging service has one of its largest markets here, with over 400 million users. The police in Mumbai and other law enforcement agencies and government agencies go to great lengths to react to fake news and to immediately expose false information as such. The authorities believe that tighter rules and tougher crackdowns are needed, but in the end it is up to everyone to get a grip on the problem and stop the spread of fake news.

By Chaitanya Marpakwar

In April 2020, the fight against the coronavirus had only just begun in India. At the same time, the authorities were arming themselves against an unexpected flood of fake news and hate speech, which soon turned out to be just as dangerous and deadly as the virus itself.
Since that time, the cases of fake news spread on social media and news services have skyrocketed just as quickly as the number of corona cases. Many of these messages and videos are bursting with hate speech and incite individual groups of the population to such an extent that in many cases this has already had fatal consequences.

Indian authorities fight the fake news virus with tweets! #FakeMessageAlert. "

For example, it so happened that just a few days after the Prime Minister of the Indian state of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray, warned against the spread of fake news, a wild mob of more than 300 villagers killed three men in the village of Palghar near by Popped by Mumbai on my way to a funeral. A few days before the lynching, false news had spread among the villagers claiming that child kidnappers and bandits were loitering in numerous villages in the city. In these WhatsApp messages, residents were asked to remain vigilant, and guards and observation teams were formed shortly afterwards to check the streets at night. The police then arrested over 100 people and nine minors. The investigations later revealed that the attacks were the result of rumors spread on WhatsApp that alleged members of the organ trafficking mafia, child smuggling gangs and thieves were up to mischief in these areas at night.

No matter if false or true

WhatsApp is widespread in India: employers use it to communicate with their employees, teachers with their students, friends chat with each other, and government officials even give interviews via WhatsApp. The downside of the coin is that news of all kinds, whether true or false, spreads rapidly.
When the Palghar incident became known in the area, Maharashtra Interior Minister Anil Deshmukh posted a list on Twitter with the names of the 101 people arrested. None of them were Muslim. This mob is a perfect example of how forwarded WhatsApp messages can quickly turn into a deadly cocktail of fake news, hate speech and lynching and threaten community security.

WhatsApp is the simplest app out there. It uses little data volume and connects a lot of people. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, where everyone can see what you post, there is a lot of privacy here. "

Jency Jacob

When the first corona case in India became known in January 2020, a lot of information about the virus was suddenly circulating in the form of news, articles and videos on the country's social networks. Fake news disguised as medical advice, in which the intake of vitamin C or hot lemon water was recommended and the voice of an allegedly prominent doctor could be heard, was shared over 5,000 times on Facebook and Twitter.

PAnik through fake news

Other viral messages even spread panic. In May, news of a military lockdown in the cities of Mumbai and Pune was shared on various WhatsApp groups and some social media. As a result, many people stormed outside to stock up on groceries. This time, however, the police in Mumbai reacted quickly. She tweeted: “The attached text is a fake message that is being shared more and more. When you receive this, please break the chain and do not forward it. All necessary supplies will still be available. Please follow the lockdown guidelines for your initial behavior. #FakeMessageAlert ”. As in many other cases, screenshots of this tweet from the police in Mumbai were soon sent to various groups of journalists via WhatsApp.
Jency Jacob, chief editor of the fact check portal Boom, explains why there are so many false messages on WhatsApp in India: “WhatsApp is the simplest app there is. It uses little data volume, connects a lot of people and is very private. In short, it has many useful advantages. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, where everyone can see what you post, there is a lot of privacy here, so people can send practically everything back and forth. Especially the people from rural regions are suddenly flooded with news. They tend to believe everything that is sent to them, and this quickly leads to wild mobs and lynching, ”said Jacob. At Boom, the editor explains, almost a dozen false reports spread via WhatsApp are unmasked every day.

Another time, a regional news broadcaster spread a false report about trains that are said to be specifically available to workers with a migrant background. Within a few hours, thousands of them gathered in front of a train station in Mumbai in the hope of catching a train back to their home village. The police had to use batons to break the crowd apart. So riots could just be prevented. Shortly thereafter, the police identified over 30 accounts on various social media platforms that had deliberately spread this false news about rail traffic.
WhatsApp then offered to curb the spread of such false information and set a limit on the forwarding so that messages could only be forwarded to one contact at a time. This limit is automatically applied if a message has previously been shared at least five times.

Regulation versus freedom of expression

Sanjay Kishan Kaul, judge at the Supreme Court, has appealed in an online series of lectures on the subject of fake news and false information to the responsibility of the individual when it comes to sharing such false news: “Any kind of regulation in the area of ​​social media can be law to restrict freedom of expression and privacy. The challenge is to regulate social media without compromising freedom of expression. Each individual should therefore be responsible for checking that all information is correct before it is sent. ”The judge also warned:“ There is a lot of news about the coronavirus, for example about 'remedies', origin, people who' accelerate the spread of the virus 'and so on. These messages often have religious and radical undertones. If the press writes something, it can be held responsible for it. So she acts responsibly. Others, on the other hand, do not have to give an account of their news. "
India is currently not only fighting the coronavirus. The country is fighting another virus at the same time: fake news and hate speech. Either way, it is difficult, but extremely important, to find a vaccine against it.


Chaitanya Marpakwar is a senior correspondent for Mumbai Mirror newspaper, a Times Of India Group medium, where he has been reporting on social and political issues since 2012. He also teaches journalism at St. Xavier’s College. In 2018 he received a scholarship from the Robert Bosch Stiftung's “India-Germany Media Ambassador” program and worked in Stuttgart during this time. He has already written numerous articles about the corona pandemic in Mumbai and has repeatedly exposed false reports and rumors as such with his reporting.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors.

Translation: Sabine Bode
Copyright: Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi; This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany License.

September 2020

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