Unless you’re living under a rock, chances are you’ve been bombarded by fake messages peddling cures and conspiracy theories about Covid-19 in the last few weeks. A recent study by Joyojeet Pal, associate professor at the School of Information, University of Michigan, and other researchers, reveals that misinformation about the pandemic has steadily increased since January. Pal spoke to Sonam Joshi about why some kinds of fake news have become more rampant than others
You have studied the growth of fake news over Covid 19 since January. How has it grown, and what are the three biggest categories of misinformation that have thrived?
It isn’t possible to give a percentage number to the growth, since we can only measure what is debunked. From mid-Jan to mid-March, there were anywhere between 3-15 stories being debunked in any given week. Since mid-March and April, there have been between 30-60 being debunked weekly, not to mention the old ones that still circulate.
The three top categories are on culture and ethnicity, on government and institutions, and on cures and treatment. Back when the Covid crisis began, when it was still being referred to as the Wuhan Crisis, there was relatively high misinformation on casualties, and fake graphic imagery of sickness or death attributed to the virus. An example was a revolting video of a maggot removal presented as a Covid case, which went viral in India, but also elsewhere.
Likewise, there was also more conspiracy theories around the sources of the virus, which had an animal/nature component, but also offensive cultural references to Chinese people and practices. Messages about meat and the virus also had a related implicit message of highlighting the value of a vegetarian lifestyle as resistant/preferable to avoid this and other viruses. This segue from negative messaging about the Chinese to lionising subsets of Indian culture are also useful in understanding how some of the later culture-related messaging emerged.
By mid-March, we see way more misinformation post the Tablighi Jamaat issue, shifting the ‘community of blame’ from the Chinese to Indian Muslims. Since the ecosystem of blame was already in place, that kind of misinformation took off quickly with a section of Indians already primed to believe negative news about Muslims.
Does India have a bigger fake news problem than other countries or is it a global problem? Do you find any aspects that are unique to India?
Not necessarily. There are two major drivers of fake news. In terms of facilitating the spread and mechanics of fake news, there is the ecosystem of encrypted platforms, such as WhatsApp, on which attributions are not clear, and these platforms are widely used in India, thus people are more prone to getting access to misinformation. The second driver is the cognitive environment for fake news — different things drive that. For one, existential panic of some kind such as a stock market or bank crash may make people more willing to believe financial misinformation just as a healthcare scare may enable various forms of healthcarerelated fake news. In the cognitive environment, polarisation is a driver of misinformation, because it enables for a willingness to believe that problems in one’s life are attributable to a perceived antagonist group.
Several social media campaigns have used humour to spread awareness about the virus. How effective are these?
Humour is very effective in the virality of these campaigns, how effective they actually are in changing behaviour is harder to tell. The Jaipur police had a viral message that threatened to force lockdown-breakers to listen to the terrible remake of Masakali on loop. This is an idea that was already used very successfully by Kerala Police that has routinely used humour on social media to do largescale awareness and outreach campaigns.
Do you think social networks are serious about combating fake news?
It is a public relations embarrassment for many social networks, but at the same time, the networks get usage and footfall from fake news. That said, several of the social network groups have made grants to study social media, so there is an attempt to put money towards the problem.
Some of those fake forwards look so authentic and official. What should people do before forwarding what they receive?
People should generally practise waiting a minute before sending out anything — whether an angry email, or a WhatsApp forward. If people read through a typical fake news story, they will find that there are enough hints in the way fake news is crafted — the language, the statistics, the imagery — that they can spot what may be wrong. Practically any fake news out there would be verifiable through a quick web search. Plus there are apps which will do a verification. Perhaps the most important thing people should do first is to ask the sender publicly, if it is on a group, if they know something to be true (and feel satisfied with the response) before forwarding it on. If something is untrue, they should likewise confront senders.