Deluge of misinformation

Print edition :

A screenshot of the AltNews website exposing fake news. These images from Gujarat in 2017 were circulated on social media as RSS workers providing aid during the Kerala floods.

What followed the rain and flooding in Kerala was a deluge of “fake news” in the garb of “well-meaning” messages on social media which undermined the suffering of the flood-affected and impacted the outcome of relief operations negatively.

Even as the people in the State struggled to stay afloat, mentally and physically, and quietly appreciated the coordinated efforts by the Left Democratic Front government, the opposition and the Centre, there were attempts to discredit the united efforts, the relief pouring in and to underplay the extent of the devastation. These were political attempts by those owing allegiance to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates as some of those posts revealed. The wrangling over the quantum of aid required from the Central government and other sources, including international aid, and the Centre’s reluctance to declare the floods a “national calamity” added to the already difficult situation.

One message that was circulated widely on social media in the second week of August was a two-minute audio clip put out by Suresh Kochattil, a Hyderabad-based professional whose Facebook account describes him as a “diehard optimist who believes in standing up for a just cause, no matter what the consequences” and as belonging to the “Social Media of the BJP”. The clip was aimed at underestimating the extent of devastation in Kerala and was clearly directed at dissuading people from sending money or other relief material. Almost everyone with a Facebook account or WhatsApp installed on their phones had seen, read and heard the message and were forwarding it as well. With a forwarded message that said “please listen to this before you plan next for Kerala Flood Relief”, the audio clip, in impeccable English, urged people not to waste their efforts in sending money and other relief material as it was the “superbly rich” and the well-placed who had been affected. He also claimed with considerable authority that what Kerala needed was “hundreds of thousands” of carpenters, plumbers and electricians who would help in the rebuilding of houses. Suresh claimed that “most of the people impacted were from well-to-do families, either middle or upper middle classes” and that they did not require “money, candles and matchboxes”. In fact, they do not “need anything”, he said in the audio clip.

He claimed that he had been to several relief camps, including one run by the Gujarati community, which had 200 to 300 trucks loaded with material. He claimed that the indoor stadium in Kochi was full of stuff and no one wanted it. His political inclinations stood exposed in his statement that if anyone wanted to donate money they could do so to “genuine guys” and “recognised agencies” such as volunteers of Seva Bharati. “I have the Seva Bharati guys here,” he said in the audio clip, who “are working on ground”.

Seva Bharati is a non-governmental organisation founded by Balasaheb Deoras, the third sarsanghchalak of the RSS. Suresh further said how Seva Bharati functioned in every district and offered to help coordinate with those sending relief material. He repeatedly cautioned people not to send money and said the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund was “not a great place to donate”. He then proceeded to make comparisons with floods in “Andhra or Telangana”. People in Chengannur, Pala and Ranni were rich people, he said, adding that “they will throw it [the relief material] back at you”.

Meanwhile, AltNews, a website busting fake news, said images of RSS workers seemingly involved in relief operations being propagated were old images of them involved in relief in a fire incident in Kollam in 2016. Photographs of Kerala’s Agriculture Minister, Sunil Kumar, distributing relief were also circulated on social media describing him as an “RSS karyakarta”.

There were also other attempts to misinform the public. S. Gurumurthy, who was recently inducted into the Reserve Bank of India as its Director, shocked all sensibilities when he tweeted linking the Kerala rains to a Supreme Court case regarding the entry of women in the Sabarimala temple. His tweet said: “Supreme Court judges may like to see if there is a connection between the case and what is happening in Sabarimala. Even if there is one in a million chance of a link, people would not like the case decided against Ayyappan.” Gurumurthy, the editor of Tughlaq, later clarified that his tweet was a “comment on people’s view” and that he was not an Ayyappa devotee.

In another controversial statement, the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha chief Swami Chakrapani said no help should be given to those who ate beef. There were social media posts requesting “North Indians not to donate a single penny to these beef eaters”. There were others who declared that “beef eaters should die”. One BJP supporter posted: “Don’t donate any money as it will not be used for relief work. It will be used against our country by these leftists by giving it to naxals and JNU tukde tukde gang. Find some other way to help Keralites, not by donating to the CMO, Kerala.”

Sankaran Nair of Guruvayoor Networks posted that natural calamities had been “affected [sic] on the Christians and Muslim dominated districts in Kerala. Christians dominate the districts—Kuttanadu in Allapuzha, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta, Idduki, Ernakulam, Thrissur and Wayanad and Muslims dominate districts like Malappuram and Kozhikode.”

A game of one-upmanship was clearly on to discredit the efforts of the State government. BJP sympathisers claiming to be experts in natural disaster management put out long narratives of how it was a man-made disaster for which the government was solely responsible. Significantly, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu appealed to the Central government to declare the floods a national calamity.

K.J. Alphons, Union Minister for Tourism who was critical of the State government’s constant plea for more funds, later appealed to the Centre that the State should be allowed to receive aid from the United Arab Emirates, which it had apparently offered. Alphons had undertaken aerial visits of the flood-affected areas with the Chief Minister and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh.

Despite attempts to polarise the State on communal and sectarian lines, there were several instances that displayed humanity—of fishermen putting their lives and boats at risk to rescue people and reach relief material to them; of Khalsa Aid reaching out from Punjab; of a Thrissur temple offering a hall for Muslims to pray and of a mosque in Malappuram serving as a haven for all, including Hindus. For most people, it was a question of getting back on their feet; for some others, it was an occasion to polarise and reap a political harvest.