The Covid-19 pandemic and Fake news

Introduction

Since the advent of information technology and digital platforms, our life has become more people-centric be it online or offline but as every new invention tries to offer some opportunities, it also brings across a lot of challenges. The word “Fake news” can be defined as false or misleading information which is represented as news. The problem of fake news has become a major issue at the time of a pandemic as well. The world at large is striving to maintain a decent approach with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic but the rise of fake news around the social media platforms and news channels is unprecedented, leading to fact-checkers and health advisers working ceaselessly in order to provide accurate information on the disease and the ways in which it can be dealt upon.

Due to wider accessibility with respect to smartphones and other technologies, today every person is thus vulnerable to fake news. The epidemic is spread almost to 190 countries and with more and more people forced to stay home during quarantine, internet usage is bound to be higher than earlier as now the people have resorted to online platforms for working from home, gaining knowledge online, and also in their leisure time sharing personal and other related data online. Due to wider accessibility, any misinformation at this crucial time can have a devastating effect with respect to communal harmony and peace.

India and the menace of fake news

The problem regarding fake news is much harsh in India due to the rapidly growing social media base and lack of regulation of social media platforms. With more than 376 million people using all kinds of social media platforms, India is one of the fastest as well as the most vulnerable country with respect to fake news and misleading information which is circulated on the various platforms. Videos and fake messages are routinely circulated via popular media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook, triggering communal harmony and rising tensions-which may lead to negative stereotyping of individuals, specific groups and communities. However, for a number of people, fake news is regarded as a small issue but at the time of a life-threatening pandemic it can become a major menace.

In the Indian context, there is no specific provision of law that deals with fake and misleading information. However, in the Indian Penal Code, there are certain provisions that talks about considering certain forms of speech a crime with respect to social media or online content. The majority of fake news which went viral among the masses in India was regarding communal innuendos and a wide range of posts, ranging from information about the pandemic’s flare-up to bogus news about its beginning and spread, not to mention fake treatments and cures. This lead to an increase in hate speeches and communal violence across the country.

In order to deal with this set of circumstances, the Supreme court held that the sudden migration of laborers working in the inner-cities was the aftermath of the panic created by fake news regarding the extension of lockdown for more than three months. Such migration, as per CJI S.A. Bobde and Justice L. Nageswara Rao, had caused indescribable suffering to those who relied and acted on such news. It was also held that it was not possible for them to neglect the problem of fake news spread either by electronic, print, or social media. While the opinion relied on the fact that they did not intend to interfere with the debates regarding the pandemic but the media houses and other sources of circulation have to refer and publish the official version of developments.

The Court also directed the Govt. of India to release a daily bulletin which shall be made active within a period of 24 hours through all media portals and also on social media and forums to clear the doubts of people.

Legal provisions related to Fake news and Disinformation in India:

Even though at present, India does not have a specific law to deal with the menace of fake news but there are certain legal provisions under the Indian Penal Code, The IT Act, etc. which can be invoked in case of misinformation and fake news being circulated. Some existing legal provisions are as under:

  • Section 505(1) of Indian Penal Code, 1860: The punishment for making, publishing or circulating any statement, rumor, or report which may cause fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public. The punishment for the same is imprisonment and fine which may extend to 3 years or fine or both.
  • Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005: Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic shall be charged with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.
  • Section 66D of Information Technology Act: Whoever, by any communication device or resource cheats by personating shall be punished with imprisonment of a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine which may extend to one lakh rupees.
How to identify fake news?
  • Double-check information with other trustworthy media sources.
  • For the purpose of authenticity, one must rely on the source of news from where it is being forwarded or circulated and whether the said news is credible or not.
  • One should not only read the headlines, in fact, but the crux of the news is also the basic inner story which gives much insight into the article being posted by someone.
  • Another thing is the date on which the news was posted as the incident happened earlier on different occasions can have an appalling effect on the present.
  • One must be familiar with the different information channels available today, and the correct information providers.
  • Report the fake information on social media websites to the respected administrators of the platform.
Conclusion

The legal ramifications of this serious act aren’t frequently comprehended in numerous cases and people fail to accept that whatever comes by means of their handheld gadgets must be valid and significant. This requires a bigger mindfulness program, in which the IT Act should take the lead, and is supported by institutions and corporates. Obviously, a coordinated war against coronavirus must be battled on various fronts. Counterfeit news at this time of pandemic is one such basic front on which the war must be lead by the authorities responsible in order to provide the right insight with respect to the news and posts to the people.

Before making, posting, or forwarding any message online or offline, one needs to be aware of the implications of the same as the said information can be false and unreasonable and can create panic in any way among the people who go through these news. One needs to abstain from forwarding any corona related messages without verifying especially in this age of “info-demic” which the World Health Organization defined as – “dependability of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find relevant sources and credible guidance when one needs it.

Keywords: Fake news epidemic, how can you lower the influence of fake news, legal penalties journals misinformation, disinformation is at a critical level, what impact does fake news have on people in India.

Author

  • Mayank Shyamsukha

    Student at Institute of Law Nirma University. A passionate legal entrepreneur who has a keen interest in legal research and writing. He has authored several articles on Constitutional Law, Contract Law, Information and Technology Law, Family Law etc.

Disclaimer

This article is authored by Mayank Shyamsukha, Student at Institute of Law, Nirma University.

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