This article is written by Ridhi Mittal, a student of Symbiosis law school, Noida. This article examines the role of the media in the creation of fake news during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fake news means any news which is either not true or is misleading. When one thinks of news, media is a term that gets associated with it automatically. Media comes in different forms like television, movies, social media, and print media that includes newspapers, magazines, and books. With such a diversified range of media, it is pretty natural to see the spread of fake news. Fake news is a global menace leaving India no exception to it. In today’s time, social media has more influence over people than other forms of media. Rather than reading a newspaper, people prefer downloading e-news apps and staying updated through them. During the COVID-19 times, the strict protocol of ‘no physical contact and no physical labour at work was followed, this trend gained a huge increase. The scenario of fake news is a threat as well as a challenge to public health communication as more and more people depend upon the internet for information therefore, in such serious life and death situations during the COVID-19 times, fake news is a boon to society.
Intricacies of fake news
There is no particular or mandatory definition of fake news. There are various connotations attached to it. As per the ethical journalism network, fake news is the information that is likely to be perceived as news. It is something that is deliberately fabricated and disseminated for others to believe in its falsehood and doubtful facts. This term, although coined a long term back, gained popularity during the 2017 US elections. Donald Trump was elected as the US president and allegations were raised against him that social media’s fake news influenced the elections as well as Brexit. Fake news is acknowledged as news, story, information, data, and report which is or is wholly or partly false. Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul addressed the issue of fake news as a serious problem during an online lecture. He said that it is even more dangerous than the coronavirus itself. According to him, the then constitutional makers did not see the problem of fake news coming into existence and thus took no measures against it. He also emphasized the role of mainstream media and accountability from mainstream media to pull out fake news. In Today’s situation, where the epidemic like coronavirus (COVID-19) has grasped the world into its hands, the internet-based life is overflowing with a wide range of posts, extending from data about the malady’s flare-up to bogus news about its starting point and spread, also offering untested ‘treatment’. Seeing this critical situation of our society. Fake news is widely accepted as false information. It is a fabricated story or information without any verifiable facts or missing sources. These stories may be specially designed to mislead a reader by making him/her believe something that is either completely or partly false. Recent years have seen social media being a more common platform for the spreading of fake news.
The role of media
Media is considered the fourth pillar of democracy. With great power comes great responsibility. Therefore, by being the fourth pillar of democracy, the media is expected to deliver confirmed and verified news only. When it comes to fake news, the media has a significant role to play, be it print media or social media. There are times when the news becomes fake because of the difference of understanding and further interpretation of people. The lack of proper communication leads to misunderstanding between the reader and writer which further results in wrong interpretation causing a form of fake news. This system has grown during the pandemic situation. Popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, etc., are prominent platforms wherein people spread fake news as information circulates fast and it is not always censored or verified. We have often witnessed a lot of forwarded messages on WhatsApp groups or posts on Facebook whose credibility is highly doubted. One such group of messages were related to the cure of covid-19 and the measures to avoid them. These messages resulted in fake news as the cures mentioned were not scientifically proven or advised by any doctor. Sites like WhatsApp and Facebook are easy mediums to spread fake news or misinformation without any strict measures to scrutinize their content. The mainstream media’s inclination for sensationalism and propaganda-driven news has led to inaccurate news dissemination. Due to the increase in misinformation and fake information by the media, the trust of people in the media has started declining. A study conducted by the IAMAI found out that more than Facebook or Whatsapp, fake news on traditional media can influence the minds of the public. Due to the scarcity of reasonable facts and evidence, one tends to believe in the fake news by the media as the trust in the media is enough for one to reason out with what the media shows and tells. Not just the mainstream media but also online social media is responsible for the spread of fake news as these days teenagers get updated with recent trends and happening through social media more than the print media like newspapers or even TV news channels also.
Instances of misinformation in the pandemic
Certain instances as to when the media is seen spreading fake news are as followed:
- The improper coverage of the media and its reporting for the issue of Tablighi Jamaat led to criminalizing the pandemic. The jamaat was blamed for the spread of the coronavirus which resulted in everyone giving their own stories and thus creating a flood of fake news. This happened because no one had complete knowledge but just bits and parts of it and thus ended up creating their fake news.
- There were many Whatsapp forwards talking about remedies of curing COVID-19 through homely methods like gargling with lemon or salt water and injecting yourself with bleach which were never approved by any health organisation.
- In a recent incident in Mumbai as migrant laborers gathered at the Bandra Railway station near masjid, the mainstream media especially TV news channels sensationalized their gathering. Giving it a religious angle and spreading hatred against the Muslim community. The media here created a situation of misinformation resulting in different misinterpretations and thus the spread of fake news.
- In Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, a man was arrested for committing fraud and forgery, who called himself as “Corona Wale Baba” and misguided people to wear magical inscribed rings to keep corona away.
- In Maharashtra, on 13th March, FIR was registered against the owner of a mattress company who claimed in a newspaper advertisement that his mattress could cure COVID-19. There was no such way of curing corona which is why he was arrested for spreading Fake News.
- A claim regarding women avoiding vaccines while on periods also came into limelight. There is no such thing that a woman on her periods can’t get vaccinated, neither said by any doctor nor proven scientifically. Yet such news was spread, adding to the pile of fake news spread during the corona period.
Implications of fake news
When fake news is discovered by people, they tend to lose interest in that particular media. With such a diverse range of news channels and news forms, one has several options to go to for having news. But sometimes what happens is that when a news channel brings forward a piece of twisted news that is partly true and partly false, the other news channels try to mold it further and present it from a different perspective. This molding of news leads to the complete changing of facts and thus showing fake news. Then, when this fake news is discovered by people, their trust and belief in the fairness and truth of the media automatically declines and leads them into believing that what other news is being shown might also be false, although it might not be.
One such incident happened on social media. The boy’s locker room case. In this case, everyone believed in a half story and started spreading it. It resulted in fake news. Later when the case was investigated and the entire case came forward, everyone got to know that half the story was fake and fabricated. The relation of this case with the Snapchat case was detached which therefore made the whole picture a lot more clear. Even the slightest bit of news can affect a large number of people in different ways and when it turns out to be false, it can have different implications on people. Some of those effects may even be outrageous.
Another situation of misinterpretation or we can say misinformation was seen during covid times when our prime minister, Mr. Narender Singh Modi requested entire India to step out of their house on 22nd March 2020 at 5 p.m. to bang thali. People mistook this and hundreds of people gathered on the streets to perform the said task which contradicted the whole purpose of the Janta Curfew.
In India, there is no explicit legislation dealing with false information. The right to freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, is the fundamental law that encourages the free publication or broadcasting of news. If you believe you have been the victim of fake news, you can submit a complaint with the NBA, which is an organization that represents private television news and current affairs broadcasters.
Implications or repercussions are seen in terms of legal punishments as well. The offence of making, publishing, or circulating any statement, rumour, or report which tends to cause a fear-like situation amongst the citizens of the country or to any particular section of the society is punishable under Section 505(1) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. A person can either be imprisoned for a period of up to 3 years or can be awarded a fine. In certain cases, both can also be avoided. Personating or cheating through any device or computation source, which thereby spreads a rumour is a punishable offence under Section 66 D of the Information Technology Act, 2000. The punishment that can be awarded is either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to a fine which may extend to one lakh rupees. Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 can also be considered as it says that whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic is punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine. The existing legal provisions do cater to penalizing the creation of false content and the malicious distribution thereof but in the absence of any designated legislation which enables for timely/instant removal of such content once it has been published. Rumours are a lethal weapon that affects the morale of the people. The Law enforcement agencies have power under law to take legal action against anyone who spreads rumours about the virus and causes a state of panic among the general population. Spreading fake or false news can be dangerous thus shall be avoided completely. If a person believes fake news is defamatory, he or she can initiate a civil or criminal defamation case. As a result, we can observe that there is no specific provision dealing with all sorts of fake news under the IPC.
Fake news refers to false news or misinformation. News can be spread through different forms of media, namely print media, social media, verbal media. During the pandemic, the spread of fake news increased. Although, major popularity was gained during the 2017 US elections. It was during the time of Donald Trump’s election that the practices of fake news gained such huge limelight. The case talked above in terms of fake news, affected both Brexit and the elections. In India, COVID-19 is one of the periods which lead to an increase in the spread of fake news. It was also possible because everyone was free from their busy lives and had time to turn on the tv and see what the news was. Even those who never checked the news started looking for updates on cases of coronavirus and its affecting areas like the opening of schools and colleges, updates on gym’s and being up to date with the latest COVID-19 guidelines. The news channels showed certain pieces of news which had double meaning or were partly true which lead to the belief of people in fake news. The coverage of the number of equipment and resources was not transparent. Due to this people have wrong assumptions regarding the treatment given to a covid patient. Even there was news regarding people molesting and misbehaving with hospital staff amid covid situations on religious grounds creating religious disputes. When verified, such news was never true and was only spread to create religious problems in the country. Due to these situations, certain implications arise which result in the declining faith of people in the media, be it print, verbal or social media.
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