In the month of March, people got lined up for ‘miracle drink’ in Delhi at a Sabha organised by Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Mahasabha, to have their share of Gaumutra (cow’s urine). The craze for this madness was created by an infodemic, which said: ‘Covid is an avatar, which has taken form of virus to kill non – vegetarians and people who will have this gaumutra will not be touched by the same’. A similar incident happened on June 23rd when a renowned public figure Baba Ramdev and his company Patanjali Ayurveda launched ‘Coronil with Coronakit’. They claimed that – it can cure people from COVID – 19. Ramdev launched his medicine with great pomp and show. Media platforms started to embrace Babaji as saviour of entire world and humanity. Tweeple and Netizens declared Babaji as modern day Hanuman with Coronil as Sanjeevani. For next few hours, he was trending everywhere. But suddenly the saviour got stern warnings and notices by Ayush Ministry of Government of India and Uttrakhand – about his misinformation (or staged information) to public. And finally on 30th June, Acharya Blakrishna the Chief Executive Officer of Patanjali Ayurveda – denied all claims of eliminating COVID -19 with Coronil. These are just two of several incidents which took place between March and June. Various fact finding websites suggests that – on daily basis hundreds of such lies and misinformation are being channelized through online platforms.
The idea of misleading masses with false information or fake news is not new and it predates COVID – 19. But the Pandemic in the absence of its medical solution have made the crisis huge and challenging. It is affecting both – physical and psychological domain of humanity. And the golden rule to prevent ourselves from being infected by COVID 19 is that – ‘we cannot play Chinese whisper during this particular crisis’. We have to listen to science and foreground our faith in rationality. On 28th March 2020, the Director General of World Health Organisation (WHO) Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that:
“We are not just fighting an epidemic; we are also fighting an infodemic’.
Merriam Webster dictionary defines ‘Infodemic’ as – a blend of information and epidemic, which typically refers to a rapid and far reaching spread of both ‘accurate’ and ‘inaccurate’ information about something, such as disease. As the world remains technologically well knitted and the global pandemic has affected the entire planet – Indian sub-continent is also facing the dual challenge of pandemic and infodemic both.
One cannot deny the fact that, in a digitalised world – citizens are now ‘netizens’ and in the times of current global crisis, information through technology is the need of the hour. The ‘new normal’ under the shadow of pandemic has duly channelized our professional and personal lives and will continue to do so in future. This ‘new normal’ under lock down, social distancing norms, home quarantine, online academia, virtual dispensation of information, work from home et al. sustains upon Information and Communications Technology (ICT). But as the world now remains greatly dependent on the virtual world of communication for the right information; misinformation too is at its full play. From fake news to myths to fake information to data security and privacy – it has all together thrown new challenges towards us. Government regulations and cyber or IT laws are being mooted upon for checks and balances. It has opened a range of discussions about the information technology, infodemics and future discourses.
The case related to infodemics is a case of classic dilemma. Information needs a communicating platform in a digitalised world; but at the same time false information creates a trust deficit and crisis. Responsible information informs and educates masses, but irresponsible information, simply does the opposite. And this whole phenomenon raises various moot points such as – In what ways this particular dilemma should be analysed? Do we need more stringent laws and regulations or it should be left on individual’s freedom of choice and rationality? Should the tech giants and media regulators become more ethical and less profit oriented? How civil societies should stand up to these dilemmas? In what ways infodemics keeps us informed and connected; but, at same time misinformed and disconnected? et al.
Notwithstanding the range of questions, India does not have ‘specific laws’ to deal with the bombardment or deluge of fake news and infodemic per se. Section 505 (1) of Indian Penal Code, Section 66 of Information and Technology Act and Section 54 of Disaster Management Act – remains some of the crucial legal options in context of infodemics; but that are clearly are not enough. One cannot deny the fact that, limitations and challenges attached to infodemic are quite new and various government are embracing this classic dilemma with caution. But for a heterogeneous or diverse state like India infodemics have unmasked it true face very quickly. With various social, economic and political schisms, quite often India has seen the dark side of infodemic. And right from lynchings to mob violence to making our forefront medical workers untouchable or calling and abusing north eastern people or Muslim community with racial and religious slurs – infodemic have duly affected this nation in times of Pandemic too. And its dark web has shaken the very foundations of this great nation.
Fake news and myths are not only being channelized by social media groups, but, also via national news agencies and print media. Ethical journalism along with populistic overtones has been the one of the biggest and fastest carriers of infodemic. Without any shadow of doubt, a kind of ‘information disorder’ exits in our society. And in the absence of digital literacy, awareness and strict legal options – infodemic remains the biggest breeding ground for any kind of tensions in our society. Quite often the chain of infodemic remains invisible, hard to decipher, perplexing and worrying; and COVID – 19 has multiplied its magnitude.
Right communication strategy and technological skills remains an important strategy to deal with COVID -19. But as mentioned above, in the absence of digital literacy and stringent laws and regulations – people are expected to use their rationale and should become the individual carriers and drivers against the infodemic. Corona Pandemic has uncovered several fault lines of Indian subcontinent. And one such fault line is as to how infodemic creates perception, changes mass psychology with rapid speed and creates panic all around. Any misinformation or false news or fake messages can create extremity among masses in the times of Pandemic. COVID – 19 has shown us the utter power and devil nature of information and communications technology. And as the internet usage with the new normal of lockdown will remain in continuity, India cannot afford to fight pandemic and infodemic both. The advent of infodemics has given a full stage to miscreants and digital criminals for their respective domains. In fact, throughout the Pandemic, there has been a deluge of fake news, misinformation and irresponsible reporting and communication, which is hard to validate amid other contributing factors, such as a lack of digital literacy. So, what shall we do and how to stop the same? The answer is – just as fundamental right and duties, every concerned citizen of this nation has to come forward against Gaumutra or Coronil. Digital illiteracy and unawareness can only be defeated by rationality and creating a chain of conscious awareness. Last but not least, we should never forget that, ‘revolutions can produce Robespierre too’. And if information technology is a revolution – infodemics remains its Robespierre.
Dr Biplove Kumar, Assistant Professor, School of Law (SOL), Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS)