I was living in a dormitory on campus at the University of Illinois when the swine flu pandemic hit the United States back in 2009-2010. A pandemic that was pushing the world into chaos, the swine flu had an estimated 1.4 billion confirmed cases globally. As college students, we wanted updates frequently. At that time, we did use social media but were more dependent on traditional media sources for the latest information. Today, the world is affected by the coronavirus pandemic. And today, the means used to consume news are vastly different than college.
Today, Twitter and WhatsApp are used heavily by all ages. Instagram is a major medium among younger citizens. Put together, all of these platforms are global and effective. News, audio clips and videos can reach anywhere in seconds. While this technology is great, digital platforms are a double-edged sword. The other edge is fake news. India saw the true impact of fake news in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Misinformation and fake news was an organized industry on a national scale; fake videos and images were used frequently for mass deception.
Once fake news enters a society, it cannot be eliminated. In India, media also currently has little or no regulation. In the case of coronavirus, fake news and fear-mongering infected India way before the virus did. Headlines were sensationalized. The content was as well. The problem was that this content unanimously poured out consistently and missed two things that the Indian public really needed to know. First, there was virtually no content detailing confirmed best practices. Second, articles did not focus on the importance of not panicking.
The troubling part is that over the past couple of months, coverage on the coronavirus pandemic continues to degrade. Even the Supreme Court of India and the Press Council of India had to step in and issue advisories to the media.
The Supreme Court stated, “The migration of large number of labourers working in cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lockdown would continue for more than three months. Such panic driven migration has caused untold suffering to those that believed and acted on such news. In fact some have lost their lives in the process. It is, therefore, not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news…”
The Press Council of India urged “media to responsibl[y] ensure dissemination of verified news on coronavirus outbreak, based on the daily bulletin by the government following the Supreme Court’s directive on the issue.”
Despite this, most major publications are more vested in anti-Modi narratives and fear-mongering versus giving people objective information. All of this to make a quick buck or to get more hits online. Influencers are doing the same. Here are a few examples.
In a BBC interview, Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan confidently said that India would be looking at 300 million deaths with coronavirus. Indians hearts skipped a beat upon hearing this. But the problem was, to get to this conclusion, Dr. Laxminarayan incorrectly applied a mathematical model that did not consider India-centric factors like cultural greetings and population density.
The Quint published a fear-mongering article on March 28, 2020. The headline read that India could have already reached Stage Three of the pandemic. Not only did the headline create fear in millions of readers, but the content also did. There was no official announcement of India reaching stage three. To add to that, the article quoted one Dr. Girdhar Gyani. Dr. Gyani falsely stated that India is in the most critical stage of the coronavirus pandemic. Upon further research, it was found that Dr. Gyani, who was quoted by The Quint, is not a health expert. Nor is he a medical doctor. Upon looking at his LinkedIn, Dr. Gyani holds a doctorate in engineering. What logic did The Quint use to think Dr. Gyani is an informed, credible authority on the coronavirus pandemic?!
Unsurprisingly, NDTV continued creating anti-government and fear-mongering narratives as it did with CAA coverage and the Delhi Riots. But this time, the media platform got caught red-handed. An NDTV article sensationalizing the coronavirus used statistics from a supposed Johns Hopkins study. However, when the article was published, John Hopkins University officially responded that it did not authorize this study. Granted that this study was published and somebody illegally put the John Hopkins University logo on it. But isn’t it the most fundamental part of a journalist’s job to make sure that the research used is credible before publishing an article? The article was quickly pulled down after Johns Hopkins University called NDTV out.
Influencers are also busy publishing anti-Modi narratives. Curiously, these are also the same influencers who unanimously published anti-CAA and anti-government content during the Delhi Riots. Swara Bhaskar and Dhruv Rathee have unsurprisingly praised the AAP party’s actions during the coronavirus pandemic. This is the same ruling party that callously brought thousands of migrant workers together during a national lockdown without social distancing. Kunal Kamra has gone so far to say that PM Modi is using the coronavirus pandemic has a ‘photo opp.’ Really dude?! Kamra has over one million followers.
What is the point being made here? In a democracy, any citizen, that includes these influencers, do not have to publish pro-government content if they do not want to. Free speech is a fundamental right for everyone. But with millions of followers, influencers should absolutely be consistently publishing best practices at the time of a global health pandemic.
What are the consequences of fear-mongering and anti-government narratives? Panic buying where social distancing isn’t maintained. Entire industries like poultry and seafood are suffering on a major scale unnecessarily in India. This is because people are incorrectly convinced that they can contract coronavirus from eating chicken and fish. Citizens believe that having a hot shower gets rid of the coronavirus and thus, they can continue to defy the lockdown. The biggest impact of fake news is the perception that the government of India is not doing enough and is not giving updates. Both of these perceptions are factually incorrect.
It was on January 7, 2020 that the coronavirus was officially recognized. The government of India began both preparedness and response measures on January 8, 2020. The Government of India has been active ever since. Credible national government and health sources have maintained time and time again that best practices are to wash hands frequently with an alcohol-based substance and to maintain social distancing inside and outside of the home. The Ministry of Health and the MEA created phone numbers and email addresses for any queries related to coronavirus. Anyone can call and the response times are fast. The Press Information Bureau live streams press conferences from different ministries every day across its social media platforms. Even these facts were summarily ignored to spread canards by Rajdeep Sardesai simply because he doesn’t politically align with the Prime Minister.
It is just plain pitiful that in the time of a health crisis, media outlets and influencers first choose to peddle fear or anti-Modi content, and then play the victim by claiming that the government is bad at communicating. Doesn’t it occur to them that sensationalizing a health pandemic will only spark fear and paranoia? Don’t they understand that playing politics out of the situation will only increase ill sentiment at a time when the entire nation is struggling under the strict curfew?
Sadly, these media platforms and influencers understand the consequences perfectly well.
To them, this message needs to be delivered.
You may be pro-BJP or pro-Opposition. Your political ideology may differ from that of your fellow citizen. You may be completely non-political. You may be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or Zoroastrian. You may be an atheist. Whatever your identity is, one thing is for absolute certain.
Whether you like it or not, all 130 crore of us are completely dependent on Prime Minister Modi and the Central Government to save India from this pandemic. The coronavirus does not decipher between borders, political ideology nor religion. It is time to listen to our national leadership. It is a time to publish best practices versus sensationalism, fear-mongering and fake narratives. It is a time for influencers to take advantage of their influence and publish and educate on credible best practices. It is a time for all of us to put politics and religion aside. It is a time to come together and defeat this damn virus once and for all. If we don’t, it will certainly defeat all of us.