Social media rife with polarising disinformation on Odisha train tragedy

The falsehoods being spread in the immediate aftermath of the Balasore accident were laced with Islamophobia.

Published : Jun 15, 2023 11:00 IST - 3 MINS READ

Mangled coaches at the site of the mishap, in which more than 280 people died and more than a thousand were injured.

Mangled coaches at the site of the mishap, in which more than 280 people died and more than a thousand were injured. | Photo Credit: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

At the time of accidents, epidemics, and other disasters, a second tragedy has begun to unfold these days: disinformation.

Two falsehoods were spread immediately after the accident: one, that there was a mosque near the accident site, and two, that the station master concerned had a Muslim name. A variation of this theme was the speculation that many Rohingya Muslims live in Balasore.

Also Read | Editor’s Note: India’s worst train accident since 1995

On June 3, “The Random India” handle (@randomsena) tweeted a cropped drone image of the accident site with an arrow pointing to one corner that had a fuzzy structure resembling a minaret. The accompanying tweet said: “Just Saying. Yesterday was Friday”.

The handle has only 54,500 followers but the tweet was viewed by 4.3 million people at least. At the time of writing, the tweet had some 4,600 retweets and 14,600 likes. Below it, the same handle posted this line: “Just for Information: Balasore is a hub of illegal Rohingya Muslims.” Both tweets were flagged by users for peddling hate.

A cursory glance at the handle shows that the retweets and likes for its hate posts are hugely disproportionate to its following. Any social media company should be able to identify that such handles are sponsored for a specific agenda.

The Elon Musk-run Twitter, however, did not pull the tweet down. It simply added the line: “The building being highlighted is the Bahanaga Iskcon temple as confirmed by a journalist on the scene of the crash. It is not a mosque.” Twitter also added a link to the fact-check website Alt-News, which had discovered that the structure was an Iskcon temple.

The owner of the handle, one “Abhishek Singh,” later deleted the tweet, claiming he had mentioned Friday because the Coromandel Express had, on an earlier occasion, derailed on a Friday. But by now the damage was done; the tweet and the photograph had spread across platforms such as WhatsApp.

One Anubhav Das, a survivor of the train accident, not only liked the tweet but, according to Alt-News fact checker Mohammed Zubair, “gave statements about ‘possible sabotage’ to the news agency ANI”.

Meanwhile, the sabotage angle was casually peddled by other handles, including that of so-called journalist @SureshChavhanke (“…Terrorists have played holi with blood earlier too…”). Other users called it “railway terrorism”, “clear case of sabotage”, etc.

On Facebook, a few pages popped up “innocently” asking if the Assistant Station Master’s name was “Sharif”. On June 5, one Bharat Bhavsar shared a picture of a man in white uniform sitting at a railway instrument panel and tweeted: “…The name of the station master of this station is Mohammed Sharif…”

Also Read | How the disaster response to the Odisha train accident panned out

The Bahanaga Station Master was identified as one S.B. Mohanty, and fact-check websites discovered that the photograph tweeted was actually from a 2004 blog about the Kottavalasa-Kirandul line.

As more handles began spewing communal venom, the Odisha Police warned that “severe legal action will be initiated” against rumour mongers. The fact, however, is that this is a disease that has come to stay in India with enough people willing to buy the lies and not enough done to stop the mischief.

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