Calling out fake news

The COVID-19 crisis sees a spurt in fake news posts and videos targeting the Muslim community.

Published : Apr 20, 2020 07:00 IST

Even as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, in India the fight seems to have got much tougher with an upsurge in communal polarisation. There was an explosion of fake news relating to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, and Muslims were the target. Spit, sneeze, lick, hit or throw, Muslims were seen doing all this and much more in a series of fake videos that went viral on social media. From a video showing men licking spoons allegedly to spread the virus to another where a man is shown spitting on fruits to infect buyers to yet another where a policeman, allegedly Muslim, is seen hitting a Hindu priest, there was no depth too low for the fake news factory to stoop to. Worse, many of these spurious news items were given space by the electronic media. The news agency ANI kept them enthusiastic company. The result was not just overwhelming confusion about the veracity of such videos and news items, but a genuine threat to communal peace and harmony at a time of grave danger to humanity.

Professor Mohammed Talib, a noted sociologist who teaches at Oxford, felt that the Tablighi Jamaat was just a pretext. “The media have been targeting a particular community for long,” he said.

The circulation of fake news started early in the pandemic with a provocative video of Muslims licking utensils. Within hours, the video had been shared or “liked” thousands of times and in middle-class residential localities, it was shared on colony WhatsApp groups, with many residents sharing it with the tagline ‘Spreading Corona’. Others wrote, “Stay aware, stay safe. Coronavirus is not spreading in India but it is being spread in the country. An example of this is Nizamuddin.”

The fact-checking website AltNews ascertained that the video was four years old and showed Dawoodi Bohras who lick spoons and utensils to avoid wasting even a morsel of food. Around the same time, there surfaced a video of a vendor spitting on fruits. The video was from February and had nothing to do with any “deliberate” spread of the virus. The man, though, was arrested.

On March 21 came a 45-second video showing a man, purportedly Muslim, spitting on food before delivering to customers. Mahesh Vikram Hegde, founder of Postcards News, which often peddles fake news, shared the video and wrote: “What’s the use of Janata Curfew when we have deadly sadists like this man? Arrest this lunatic immediately.” As reported by AltNews, this was retweeted over 2,000 times. Right-wing propagandists were quick to latch on to it without bothering to check on its authenticity. Roop Darak, Telangana State spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janta Yuva Morcha, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s youth wing, tweeted the video and called for a boycott of “such shops”. Sonam Mahajan, a BJP supporter, tweeted it, too, to justify an earlier incident in which a man had refused delivery from a Muslim executive of Zomato. Her tweet was re-tweeted over 1,200 times.

Mahesh Vikram Hegde had picked a video that was dated, had nothing to do with COVID-19 and had originated abroad. AltNews, which did a detailed search for the video, wrote on its website:

“AltNews broke the video into multiple key frames and performed a reverse image search of one of the frames on Google. We found that the video was uploaded by a YouTube on April 27, 2019. After rummaging through various reverse image search results on Google and Yandex, we discovered that the video has been circulating recently in several countries in light of the coronavirus pandemic. A March 22, 2020, report in Gulf News said, ‘Abu Dhabi Public Prosecution has confirmed that a viral online video of a worker blowing into a plastic bag containing food was not shot in the UAE.’ The report also stated that the video of a man blowing into a food bag was traced to an ‘Asian country’.

“A March 19, 2020, article by Complain Singapore reported that a complaint was filed with the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) based on the clip. Several people believed that the incident happened in a restaurant in Singapore. Complain Singapore published a statement by SFA: ‘We note that the video is not new as it was posted on social media last year.’ SFA debunked social media claims that the stall’s name is ‘Best Muslim Food Stall’…

“Both the reports from UAE and Singapore claim that the man blew into the food packet. There is no mention of intentional spitting.

“In fact, the video was also viral in Malaysia last year. A May 1, 2019, report by Feed Me , a Malaysia-based lifestyle website, said, ‘The location of the mamak (open-air food restaurant) remains a mystery despite the post has gone massively viral, gathering over 11,000 shares….’”

Amid the chaos surrounding the congregation organised by the Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi, another video of Muslim men sitting on their knees and praying started doing the rounds on social media. The video was shared widely with the claim that the people were sneezing deliberately to spread the Cronavirus.

In reality, the video was of a Zikr session undertaken by members of a Sufi order wherein they inhale and exhale energetically even as they chant the name of Allah. “Since Zikris usually performed at a Dargah, it is highly likely that the video could have been filmed somewhere else and not at Nizamuddin mosque which is also known as Tablighi Markaz or Bangle Wali Masjid,” analysed AltNews. The Nizamuddin dargah rubbished the claims by AajTak that it had anything to do with the Markaz.

Another video doing the rounds showed a Muslim policeman hitting a Hindu priest during Ram Navami in Reva, Madhya Pradesh. This, too, turned out to be case of fabrication as the policeman in the photograph was not Superintendent of Police Abid Khan as claimed but Station House officer Rajkumar Mishra. Also, the priest was found doing the puja not alone but with a large group of women whom he had invited despite the lockdown.

Soon after this, ANI shared news of the Hindu community being denied groceries in Karachi. The report, which had great potential for causing social tension, turned out to be false. Investigations by The News found that in Rehri Goth, some 10 kilometres from Ibrahim Hydar in Karachi, supposedly the area in which Hindus were deprived of food, there was no population of Hindus, though some Hindus did own a few shops there. Santosh Maharaj, a local sanitary inspector, said: “To say that Hindus did not get ration is not right at all as there are none in Rehri Goth.” He said that the government had indeed not provided any rations in Ibrahim Hydari but Hindus had not been singled out for denial or discrimination.

More recently, the Hindi film director Vivek Agnihotri, a well-known peddler of the Hindutva agenda, tweeted a video of men performing namaaz on the terrace of a building. Within hours, it was re-tweeted 5,000 times. Agnihotri asked in the caption, “Any idea where is this? Quarantine!” The assumption was that the video was of Indian Muslims worshipping together. A fact check by AltNews found that the video was from Dubai.

Vivek Agnihotri had neatly cropped some of the buildings in the background, making the video unrecognisable as having been shot in Dubai. On the Facebook page HukkaBukka, it was shared 400 times with the caption, “It can be loyalty towards the religion, but isn’t it being a traitor to the country?”

Pratik Sinha, co-founder of AltNews, said: “The pattern of misinformation started when the Coronavirus was limited to China in December-January. Then we had a case where four videos, including one of a bike accident, were merged to show police killing people suffering from the disease. One of the videos was much older. When the pandemic reached India, initially the misinformation was about health. How if you consume garlic or ginger, and use all those home remedies, it could help combat the disease. Then around the time Janata Curfew was announced, so many videos were shared of foreign countries of bodies lying in a row to show how bad the things were around the world. Things were bad but the videos were false. There was fear-mongering. By March 31, the Tablighi thing happened. After that, there has been an overwhelming amount of communal misinformation. It was not restricted to social media but was also extended to mainstream media. The whole society was stressed. When you have such fear across the society, it is easier to fall for misinformation. If you have certain biases, you are more likely to fall for some fake news.”

The Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind filed a petition in Supreme Court seeking directions to the media to refrain from spreading fake news. The petition stated: “The present petition is necessitated on account of the communal colour being given to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic by certain sections of print, electronic and social media posing a threat to the life and liberty of Muslims infringing their fundamental rights under Article 21 of the Constitution. The demonisation is also an infringement of the right to live with dignity which is also covered under Article 21 of the Constitution.”

It drew attention to communal headlines and taglines like “Corona Jehad” and bigoted statements demonising the entire Muslim community and even implicitly blaming it for the spread of the virus in the country. The petition submitted that some old unrelated videos were being spread to promote ill will against the Muslim community. The court refused to restrain the media and advised the Jamiat to approach the Press Council of India. The bench headed by Chief Justice of India said, “We cannot curb the freedom of press.”

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