As coronavirus crisis deepens, need to crack down on fake news, say experts

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByHT Correspondent
Mar 19, 2020 12:50 AM IST

Experts said the spread of misinformation has grave consequences and could spell trouble as the coronavirus crisis worsens.

On Tuesday, a message forwarded on WhatsApp claimed there were four positive cases of coronavirus in west Delhi’s Tilak Nagar and that all general stores in the neighbourhood had shut.

Prices of grain in the city’s markets are stable despite rumours of shortage.(Amal KS/HT PHOTO)
Prices of grain in the city’s markets are stable despite rumours of shortage.(Amal KS/HT PHOTO)

Two days before that, a man on Twitter shared that someone, who frequently visited his home, had tested positive for the virus in another west Delhi area.

As per government agencies, both pieces of information were false.

Experts said the spread of such misinformation has grave consequences and could spell trouble as the crisis worsens.

Dr Jugal Kishore from the department of community medicine at Delhi’s Safdarajung Hospital said the authorities must utilise all legal powers to penalise at least some people involved in sharing misinformation. “There are several laws for punitive action against those who intentionally or unwittingly share misinformation. This is the critical time to exercise those powers. If they do that, the menace of misinformation can be curbed,” said Dr Kishore.

He said that people needed to be made aware of the difference between a person testing positive for the virus and someone only quarantining themselves on the suspicion that they could have come in touch with someone carrying the virus.

“In these times, people are assuming that even those who have quarantined themselves have tested positive. They are subsequently sharing wrong information. Management of information is a professional discipline and in these times they need to be in the hands of public health experts,” said Kishore.

WhatsApp said that they understood that users are reaching out to their loved ones on their app more than ever and that on Wednesday they had pledged $1 million to combat disinformation on the pandemic.

The amount, WhatsApp said in a statement, will be granted to the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network.

“But ultimately, it is the users who need to exercise restraint in what they share and forward,” an official of WhatsApp told HT .

WhatsApp also launched a Coronavirus Information Hub to provide “simple, actionable guidance for health workers, educators, community leaders, nonprofits, local governments and local businesses that rely on WhatsApp to communicate,” the company said in a statement.

“We know that our users are reaching out on WhatsApp more than ever at this time of crisis, whether it’s to friends and loved ones, doctors to patients, or teachers to students. We wanted to provide a simple resource that can help connect people at this time. We will also continue to work directly with health ministries around the world,” said Will Cathcart, head of the company.

The Delhi Police, meanwhile, said that their focus at this stage is to create awareness about the spread of misinformation.

“Once we begin identifying people who are using social media to spread rumours, we’ll take legal action,” said Delhi Police spokesperson, Mandeep Singh Randhawa.

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