An Associate Professor at the U-M School of Information, Dr. Joyojeet Pal and his colleagues have been monitoring the spread of COVID-19 misinformation in India. In a new study, the research team tracks the occurrence of misinformation in the Indian media based on theme and temporality of the falsehood.

Pal’s academic interests and previous studies have led to extensive research on the role of social media in Indian elections, analyzing political figures’ engagement with celebrities and rhetorical choices on platforms like Twitter. Recently, he was quoted in an IndiaSpend article about the rise in fake news circulation under lockdown.

What factors make India especially prone to the spread of COVID-19 misinformation?

There are two reasons India is more prone than other places to COVID-19 related misinformation. First, online information access is relatively new. Mobile internet use exploded in 2016 and several million Indians have come online without the past experience of using Internet-based news, so the tools of checking veracity of news and noticing what may seem suspicious or like clickbait are things people are still learning. Add to this the fact that newspapers are now inaccessible in many places, and you’ll understand why mobile devices have become central to the information environment.

The second reason is that there has been an extremely polarized political environment in India since late last year, after Kashmir was stripped of statehood and the new citizenship laws -- excluding Muslims from neighboring nations access to refugee status in India -- came into effect, essentially making a landmark non-secular move by the Indian government. India saw its worst riots and student protests in years, so there was a huge spike in sectarian misinformation even before March 2020, when COVID-19 misinformation took off. 

What prompted you and your team to conduct this research?

We had already been studying political social media for a few years now, and this was an obvious extension. My group currently studies the social media feed of about 19,000 politicians at various levels throughout India, and we had seen the seeds of polarization well before the COVID crisis hit in. We had also been studying misinformation in India since the Citizenship amendment, and the segue to studying misinformation with COVID was a natural extension of that work.

According to your study, culture is the most frequent theme of COVID-19 misinformation in India. Can you discuss why?

Cultural stories are typically about a cultural group or artifact in relation to the condition. Early COVID-related stories logged under culture tended to be about China or Chinese people. Stories included references to eating and cultural habits, false or doctored images of Chinese public spaces, and conspiracy theories about the Chinese government. In those days, COVID was actually referred to as the "Wuhan Virus," colloquially.

But by February of this year, the discourse had shifted away from China as other parts of the world became far more impacted. So, in February and March, there weren’t a lot of culture-specific misinformational stories circulating in India, but a lot of stuff around cures for the virus, fake statistics, and graphic images of people suffering from the disease. This was a period when there was a lot of uncertainty around the disease, which contributed to the fake news about cures and manifestations.

On the other hand, around the end of March, there was a major Islamic religious conference in Delhi, which ended up being a superspreader event of sorts. The people who left that event took COVID back to various parts of the country. As a result, we see a huge spike in Muslim-related misinformational stories starting in April, blaming Muslim people for the spread of the disease, as well as conspiracy theories about Muslim people and their intent to weaponize the disease. The ecosystem for this kind of vilification was already in place because of the citizenship-related misinformation in early 2020.

By April, we see a drop in misinformation about home remedies, as well as ayurvedic and homeopathic treatments, as it became increasingly clear that these did not cure or prevent the disease. People became aware both from experience and from major world leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, stating unequivocally that there was no cure for the disease. What we see at this point is a shift from instrumentally driven misinformation about cures and causes to affective misinformation, which seeks to make sense by apportioning blame. Consequently, culture becomes a huge part of these stories.

Your study finds the mainstream media to be relatively complicit in spreading pandemic-related misinformation. Could you explain how such content is sometimes able to bypass fact-checkers?

For one, mainstream media has been decimated; they don't have the kind of staff or editorial checks that they did in the past. Second, and probably much more insidious, is that misinformation has great clickbait value. Thus, there are times when mainstream media will actively participate in misinformation -- anywhere on the spectrum from presenting mildly biased information to flat out lying -- because it suits their purpose of bringing in customers. In April, there broke a news story of hundreds of people showing up at a train station in Mumbai, breaking social distancing norms. The media was quick to attribute the situation to a mosque outside the station, implying that the mosque had something to do with people showing up there. News coverage repeatedly focused on images of the mosque, as well.

As it turned out, the people pictured were there purely because they were trying to get out of the city and go home. The conditions of the lockdown have been difficult, especially for poor day laborers who have lost their income and housing. They had no way of getting back to the hinterland once the government did a four-hour sudden lockdown; the mosque outside the train station was purely a coincidence, and it became the focus of the conversation. This, in my opinion, is the true nature of how dangerous our situation is. The mosque was automatically implicated in an unrelated situation, and television channels kept implying this until the state government shut down the rumor.

Which apps and platforms have been most implicated in dissemination of false information about COVID-19?

In general, encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp foster the most aggressive spread of misinformation. On these platforms, the misinformation is likely coming from a direct contact, which makes its validity go as far as the recipient’s trust of the source. This adds an extra element of danger: if a person saw the same misinformation on Twitter, there’s a good chance it would be publicly debunked.

What steps should the public take to stay vigilant about COVID-related fake news?

I think calling out misinformation is a big thing people can do. I find that everyone in my social circles in India reports seeing misinformation passed around in WhatsApp groups, often from people with a political axe to grind. But few people ever challenge this misinformation; they want to avoid confrontation. I think one thing we all need to be aware of is that misinformation is not the domain of the ill-informed. Any of us, given the right moment, can act on instinct and pass along something that is untrue or biased.  We all need to try to think for a moment before just passing along anything that crosses our path.