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Infodemic of rumors on Social Media

In present era, Internet is the most advance mode of communication because of its most important feature of independence from geographical boundaries. Many of other characteristic features of Internet are like, low cost, easy to use and fastest mode of communication. The World is reachable in one Single Click. Because of user-friendly features, Social Media platform is becoming quite popular. However, Social Media is a controversial topic in the Society.

There are different opinions all among the people regarding the impact of Social Media on human interaction.

Social Media has replaced the traditional form of information sharing because it is the fastest way to disseminate information with wide range coverage across the globe. However, during such challenging time of outbreak of COVID-19 when these platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, YouTube etc. are expected to spread the awareness and real information between the people, it is very unfortunate that these platforms becomes the biggest sources of Infodemic.

As many countries are in lockdown situation, the use of internet is very higher than usual and therefore, any misinformation/ Infodemic on these platforms can create a lot of challenges to the government. Within weeks of emergence of COVID-19 in China, rumours and misinformation about this virus started circulating on these platforms.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) noted that urgent measures must be taken now to address the “coronavirus infodemic”. Misinformation leads to confusion and it spreads fear which hampers the response to pandemics. Although WHO has created a WHO myth busters webpage to address and correct misinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak.

Rumours and Relevant Indian Law
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, Rumour means an unofficial interesting story or piece of news that might be true or invented, and quickly spreads from person to person. Social Media platforms are being used to spread rumours and other forms of misinformation.

These rumours, if remains unchecked, have serious consequences especially when these rumours are false.
At present, India does not have any specific law to check the cyber crimes and to deal with such rumours and other forms of misinformation, yet there are few provisions under different statutes which come in picture in case of such misinformation.

The relevant provisions are as follows:

  • Information Technology Act, 2000
    Section 66D Punishment for Cheating by Personation by using Computer Resource
    Imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to pay fine which may extend up to one lakh rupees.
     
  • Indian Penal Code, 1860
    Section 505 Statements conducing to Public Mischief
    Imprisonment which may extend to three years or fine or both.
     
  • Disaster Management Act, 2005
    Section 54 Punishment for False Warning
    Imprisonment which may extend to One years or fine or both.

Rumours amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Recently, several rumours were spread on social media related to COVID-19. An audio clip claiming that vegetable sellers licking the vegetables, restoration of 4G internet in J&K by Supreme Court, reduction of 30% pension by Government etc. are few among several rumours.

The Indian Government, Social Media channels and the Police are taking several measures for effectively dealing with these rumours. There are fake cures and treatment for COVID-19 which are being spread on social media, which can be very dangerous and challenging.

In the efforts to curb, the spread of these rumours the Mumbai Police has banned the spread of such rumours. It has also banned derogatory or discriminatory messages towards any organisation or community. The Police stated that for all such acts by any person or group, the designated “Group Admin” shall be held personally liable for such content in the said group.

Further, the Karnataka Police also took similar action and launched a platform to check whether news is real or fake. Anyone can submit the news for verification. Karnataka Police has taken this initiative with the aid of Check4Spam to respond rumours amid this pandemic. The Police across different states have booked various rumourmongers who are accused of spreading false news or misinformation on various platforms. The Government of Karnataka issued “The Karnataka Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020” [1] on 23.03.2020 which shall be valid for a period of one year.

As per the said Regulation:
“No person/ institute/ organisation shall use any print or electronic media for misinformation regarding COVID-19 without prior permission of the Department of Health and family welfare. This is to avoid spread of any rumour or unauthenticated information regarding COVID-19. In case any person /institute/ organisation is found indulging in such activity, it will be treated as a punishable offence under these Regulations.” [2]

The Indian Government has also launched a chatbot namely MyGov Corona Helpdesk on WhatsApp to address user queries and counter rumours on the pandemic. The Ministry of Electronics & Technology, Government of India on 20th March, 2020 issued an advisory [3] to curb false news/ misinformation on coronavirus to all social media platforms. This advisory directed these platforms to conduct due diligence and take immediate action so as to remove such content from their platforms. WhatsApp, Facebook has launched chatbox for India that will help to verify fake news and curb the spread of such news.

The Way Ahead
Along with the Government, general public is expected to exercise higher degree of caution in this challenging time. General Public needs to be more diligent during the interactions with reference to this pandemic.

Before liking, forwarding any news, it is very important for us to verify the content and the origin of such news or information. Further, the existing legal provisions provides for the punishment for spreading of false content, yet there is need of a designated legislation which deals with such issues along with other cyber crimes.

Media also have a responsibility to aware the public at large and help to curb the false information spreading on social media. China in 2015 revised its Criminal Law and imposed up to 7 years in prison for spreading rumours about disasters, Human rights. USA, Singapore, Vietnam, Belarus, Cambodia, Egypt are among the nations who have passed the specific designated legislation to deal with misinformation on social media platforms.

Written By:
  1. Ashutosh K. Sharma, Advocates, High Court of Delhi
  2. Aliya Durafshan, Advocates, High Court of Delhi

End-Notes:
  1. https;//www.mzv.cz/public/43/bd/e3/3916986_2331956_Karnataka_Epidemic_Act.pdf
  2. Clause 6, Page 2, The Karnataka Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020
  3. https://meaty.gov.in/writereaddata/files/advisory_to_curb_false_news-misinformation_on_corona_virus.pdf

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