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Rumours During Pandemic and Laws Around It

The world has faced a deluge of disinformation and influence operations for a long time. The advent of the Internet, social media platforms and real-time messengers has given free wheel to criminals, disbelievers, nation states and other motivated actors. In fact, society today is experiencing what is called an "information disorder", where it has become extremely difficult to resolve the ambiguity between right and wrong.[1]

Covid19 has spread to almost 190 countries, and with more and more people forced to stay at home during quarantine, internet use is expected to be higher than usual, as people have using online platforms to work remotely, seek knowledge, reach out to loved ones and also in times of crisis, people are eager to share personal information and any misinformation at this crucial moment can have a devastating effect.

Tensions have always been a breeding ground for information operations. The Covid-19 pandemic provided these malicious actors with a ready-to-use context to cause disruption and seek profits or take advantage of vulnerable individuals and populations. As the world battles a pandemic caused by a new coronavirus, COVID-19, authorities around the world are forced to face an avalanche of disinformation / fake news about the virus on digital platforms. In terms of reliability and acceptance people’s trust have shifted from traditional to internet/social media platforms. [2]

Rumours And Relevant Laws
Rumors are a deadly weapon that affects people's morale. Law enforcement agencies have the power under the law to prosecute anyone who spreads rumors about the virus and causes panic among the general population. Although, at present, India does not have a specific law to deal with the threat of fake news, but we still have existing legal provisions under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, etc. which can be invoked in case of misinformation. Certain existing legal provisions are:

Section 505 (1) of Indian Penal Code, 1860: The punishment for making, publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report which may cause fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public. The punishment given in the statute is imprisonment which may extend to 3 years, or fine or both

Section 66D of Information Technology Act: Whoever, by means for any communication device or computer resource cheats by personating. The punishment given in the statute is
imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine which may extend to one lakh rupees.

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. The punishment prescribed in the statute is imprisonment which may extend to one year or fine

Before creating, posting, sharing and transmitting a message, one must be aware of the implications of the same thing if it is not true and create panic in any way. We must refrain from transmitting messages related to the crown without specifically checking at this time of "infodemic" that the World Health Organization defines as "an overabundance of information- some accurate and others not - which makes it difficult for people to find reliable sources and reliable advice when they need it.

Rumours Amid Pandemic And Measures Taken
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 their efforts to limit the spread of these rumours, the Mumbai police have prohibited the spread of such rumours.[3] It also prohibited disparaging or discriminatory messages against any organization or community. The police have declared that for all these acts committed by a person or a group, the designated “group administrator” will be held personally responsible for this content in the said group.

In addition, Karnataka police have also taken similar measures and launched a platform to verify whether the information is true or false. Anyone can submit the news for review. Karnataka police have taken this initiative with the help of Check4Spam to respond to rumors in the midst of this pandemic. The police in different states have reserved various rumors which are accused of spreading false news or false information on various platforms. he Government of Karnataka issued “The Karnataka Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020”[4] on 23.03.2020 which shall be valid for a period of one year.

As per 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.” [5]

The Indian government has also launched a chatbox called MyGov Corona Helpdesk on WhatsApp to respond to user requests and counter rumors about the pandemic. The Department of Electronics and Technology, Government of India, issued a notice on March 20, 2020[6] to limit false news / misinformation about the coronavirus to all social media platforms. This notice directed these platforms to perform due diligence and take immediate action to remove this content from their platforms.

The Way Ahead
Individuals are expected to exercise greater caution in these difficult times. A small indiscretion in the transmission of an unverified message can cause loss of life or cause a serious disturbance of public order. As government and public resources are limited, it is the responsibility of the general public to be diligent in their interactions with reference to the pandemic.

These are a few simple steps that anyone can take that will lead to a mischievous backlash:[7]
  • Ascertaining the source and origin of the message. If one is not sure of the authenticity and correctness of the message or its content, one may make attempts to be sure of the veracity of the matter before forwarding it to others.
     
  • In case of any claims made in the message one has received, conduct secondary checks on Google or other sites before disseminating it.
     
  • If the message incites strong emotions, it is likely to be sent for such purposes. Any shocking or outrageous claim made needs to be verified before it is sent to others who may believe it completely
     
  • In case of the message containing videos or pictures, there is a possibility of them being edited or used out of context to mislead unsuspecting recipients. A simple reverse image search on Google can reveal the original source and context of the picture. Any harm resulting from such forwarding can make the person doing so liable to legal consequences.
     
  • Use fact checking services, there are many reputed fact checking sites, which help people to verify claims made on social media or messages which have gone viral.
     
  • Sometimes there would be obvious spelling, punctuation mistakes or other grammatical errors which can point out the inauthenticity of the message. One needs to develop a healthy skepticism towards content on social media.
These simple measures can go a long way in the fight against disinformation and fake news being spread about the Coronavirus pandemic

End-Notes:
  1. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/view-disinformation-in-times-of-a-pandemic-and-the-laws-around-it/articleshow/74960629.cms
  2. https://thewire.in/politics/covid-19-diwali-spectacle
  3. https://www.deccanherald.com/national/west/251-cases-registered-in-maharashtra-for-fake-news-rumours-amid-coronavirus-lockdown-828290.html
  4. https;//www.mzv.cz/public/43/bd/e3/3916986_2331956_Karnataka_Epidemic_Act.pdf
  5. Clause 6, Page 2, The Karnataka Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020
  6. https://meaty.gov.in/writereaddata/files/advisory_to_curb_false_news misinformation_on_corona_virus.pdf
  7. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/view-disinformation-in-times-of-a-pandemic-and-the-laws-around-it/articleshow/74960629.cms

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