Home / Industry / Media /  Covid-19: Social media platforms fight fake news under pressure from government

NEW DELHI: Herbal cures for coronavirus infection, pictures mimicking government notifications, communal content, audio clips declaring national emergency are few examples of how fake news and misinformation is being circulated on social media platforms sparking panic while making it difficult for the government and others to do do their jobs in these difficult times.

"During lockdown period, India's dependence on the foreign communication network is a matter of national concern. We will come out from the current crisis of coronavirus, but if social media companies’ patronage to fake news virus is not stopped, then it may start new era of data colonialism in India," said Virag Gupta, a Supreme Court lawyer.

With over 500 million internet users in the country, the lockdown, now in place till 3 May, has led to a significant spike in users accessing social media platforms. Most often use the internet to chat, watch videos or just access information. Facebook with over 300 million users, and WhatsApp with over 400 million users, have been witnessing high level of engagement leading to forwards and incessant sharing of information as well as misinformation.

With increasing pressure from Indian government on curbing covid-19 related fake news, social media platforms are relying on fact checkers and users to report misinformation. In absence of an effective government plan to fast-track intermediary guidelines for social media firms, these companies have been rolling out measures.

Apart from fact-checking and launching a messenger chatbot, Facebook has banned ads or listings selling coronavirus-related products such as masks or sanitisers.

"And if we see people selling these products in organic posts on Facebook or Instagram, we remove them. We have also banned ads and commerce listings that imply a product guarantees a cure or prevents people from contracting COVID-19," said a spokesperson from Facebook India.

WhatsApp, which has been dealing with fake news and hate speech menace for long now, has launched a chatbot in partnership with health ministry for disseminating authentic information on covid-19. The app has a feature limiting message forwarding to one chat at a time. The limit kicks in once a message has been forwarded on the platform five times, after which a message can be forwarded to either one WhatsApp group or an individual at a time.

"We have announced the MyGov Corona Helpdesk on WhatsApp in partnership with the Government of India. Similar services have been introduced in several states of India to empower users to find credible and accurate information across the country both in English and their specific regional language, with more helplines expected to launch in the coming weeks," said WhatsApp in a statement.

Short video app TikTok has appointed a India-based grievance officer to work closely with the government to contain misinformation apart from removing hundreds of videos that provide incorrect information about the disease. In partnership with World Health Organization and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, TikTok has introduced an in-app informational page. The page is pinned at the top of Discover tab and contains answers to common questions, offers tips on staying safe, and dispels some of the myths about coronavirus.

It is also running #GharBaithoIndia campaign urging users to stay at home and spend their time creatively.

However, the scale at which the spread is happening is beyond the control of state governments which has been making multiple arrests of people spreading fake news.

"State government and police officials are invoking archaic provisions of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and Disaster Management Act 2005 to control the menace of fake news. Social Media companies are well equipped to expose the production centers of bulk fake messages, but nothing concrete is done regarding this. Police officials arbitrary and indiscriminate arrest of individuals for sharing Facebook posts or tweets has become biggest challenge to Freedom of Speech and Rule of Law," Gupta added.

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