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Backstory: This Miasma of Misinformation Cannot Deliver Us From the Pandemic

A fortnightly column by The Wire's public editor.

Breaking news: ‘PM Modi chokes during virtual meet with doctors, frontline workers of Varanasi’, May 21, 2021

It was the tears that Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually shed while addressing the medical and frontline personnel of his parliamentary constituency on May 21 that made news, not the fact that nowhere in that speech was there the slightest acknowledgment of the failures of his government, or a smidgeon of regret that so much devastation has happened under his watch.

Yet, even at that moment of apparent grief, Modi didn’t forget to remind his audience of his pet projects – Swachch Bharat, Ujwala, Jan Dhan Yojana. This is a prime minister in perpetual election mode, a vote garnering machine, not one who seems capable of leading India out of the abyss it finds itself in today. Arundhati Roy’s plea that he resign (‘It’s Not Enough to Say the Govt Has Failed. We Are Witnessing a Crime Against Humanity’, April 29) may have an implausible ring to it, but it’s not an unwarranted one.

Amidst the deaths and devastation, there is a desperate scramble by this government and ruling party to control the situation – not through credible health care delivery but through narrative capture. The methods used, particularly on social media, are varied and fairly sophisticated.

Prime Minister, Narendra Modi interacts with the doctors and officials of Varanasi through video conferencing, in New Delhi on May 21, 2021. Photo: PTI

For instance, there is this viral joke on social media. Here’s an edited version: “A little girl was leaning into a lion’s cage. Suddenly the lion grabs her and tries to pull her inside. A biker jumps off his Harley, and punches the lion. Whimpering from the pain, the lion lets go of the girl, and the biker brings her to her terrified parents. A BBC reporter, Laura Kuenssberg, had watched the whole event. She tells the Harley rider, ‘Sir, this is the bravest thing I’ve seen a man do.’ The Harley rider replies, ‘It was nothing really. The lion was behind bars. I just saw this kid in danger, and acted as I felt right…’ He also identified himself as a British army veteran, a Conservative and a Brexit supporter…The following morning the biker turns on the BBC News and reads the headline: ‘RIGHT WING UK VETERAN ASSAULTS AFRICAN IMMIGRANT AND STEALS HIS LUNCH’. And THAT pretty much sums up the BBC’s approach to the news these days…And that of many Indian media.”

Also read: Backstory: Amidst the Death Dance of the Pandemic, a Ceaseless Pursuit To Hobble the Media

This joke is not one of those nondescript ones that slosh around on the internet. It is darkly political. Its virality would indicate that BBC’s blistering coverage of India’s handling of the pandemic (‘India Covid: Delhi builds makeshift funeral pyres as deaths climb’, April 27) has caused a slow burn in the corridors of power.

There is other flotsam and jetsam on the net. One is a grid, half of which is titled, ‘Narrative’, and the other half, ‘Truth’. In the ‘Narrative’ column, the statement appears: ‘Modi or govt didn’t see second-wave coming’. The adjoining ‘Truth’ column goes: ‘On March 17, 2021, at a COVID review meeting with CMS, PM Modi alerted states about a second wave coming and asked them to take quick steps before it gets too late. This was when India still had only 30,000 new cases per day.’ Several other statements of this kind figure in the grid. It works like one of those pamphlets that used to be thrown into cars and autorickshaws in the days before social media! This one cites no source but its intent would indicate its provenance.

The ‘Truth’, however, may be closer to what The Wire‘s piece, ‘Modi’s Gamble, and How Many Lives It Will Cost’ (May 14) reveals. One of the 11 empowered groups under the National Disaster Management Act to deal with the material aspects of the COVID challenge had warned the government that a second wave was likely and had drawn up a template to prepare for it. However Modi, in his drive to corner all the credit for handling the pandemic, actually wound up five of the 11 empowered groups and discontinued the meetings of the group tracking the virus’s spread.

Even when, by the third week of March this year, 771 instances involving three of the eight ‘variants of concern’ were identified, with 94% proving to be the B 1.617 variant, it was not taken seriously because by then the prime minister was busy with state elections. As a group of eminent former bureaucrats rightly noted: “…you, Mr. Prime Minister, and your party functionaries threw all caution to the winds by conducting huge public rallies in different states, when a restrained campaign by your party would have served as a salutary example to other political parties…”.

This is the kind of sequencing of political developments is what the country needs, but ‘mainstream’ media is far too timorous to do it. As for Modi’s ministers, they have long been reduced to ciphers. Dainik Bhaskar’s analysis of the tweets put out by Union ministers at a time when the ordinary Indian was desperately searching for beds and oxygen cylinders (‘When Social Media Was Flooded With COVID SOS Calls, Union Ministers Only Praised Centre’, May 18) provided an excellent snapshot of the perils of over-centralisation.

Volunteers take a break during the cremation of people who died due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a crematorium ground in Giddenahalli village on the outskirts of Bengaluru, India, May 13, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Samuel Rajkumar

Meanwhile the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), in its anxiety to push the State narrative, provides us with further evidence that the real intent of the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, passed earlier this year, was to gag independent counter-narration. Medianama points out how a recent advisory from MeitY warns users to not spread misinformation, and asks social media companies to “[i]ssue warning to imposters who misuse your platform and indulge in such fraudulent activities.” This, Medianama points out, goes far beyond what the IT Rules require. Nowhere do they specify that social media companies have to proactively issue warnings to individual users about impersonation.

Also read: What Rebuttals to The Lancet’s Editorial on India Got Wrong

The MeitY also rushed headlong into chastising Twitter for labeling tweets on the Congress toolkit from seven accounts linked to BJP functionaries as “manipulated” (‘Government Asks Twitter To Drop ‘Manipulated Media’ Tag on Sambit Patra’s Congress ‘Toolkit’ Tweet’, May 21). Yet the BJP has also not come out with a public denial of the Congress Party’s charge that one part of the ‘Congress Toolkit’ put out and made viral, was manufactured content using a forged letterhead (‘Twitter Adds ‘Manipulated Media’ Warning to BJP Spokesperson Sambit Patra’s ‘Toolkit’ Tweet’, May 21).

All this only proves the validity of The Lancet observation in its editorial of May 8, that the Indian government “has seemed more intent on removing criticism on Twitter than trying to control the pandemic”.

Indifference to Palestine

Indifference, apathy and a pro-Israel bias – these are the three attributes of the Indian media’s reporting on Palestine. Think about it. Palestine was colonised at the precise juncture when India was de-colonised. Its land was stolen from its people; its people expelled from the land. An estimated 530 Palestinian villages/towns were flattened; 7.5 million Palestinians, rendered refugees. The 1.5 million Palestinians remaining in Israel have no less than 65 laws that discriminate against them, while the 4.7 million Palestinians in the two disconnected pockets of the West Bank and Gaza are controlled by racist military orders, which include denial of access to the holy city of Jerusalem even for religious reasons. The attempts to evict Palestinian families from the occupied neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah to make way for Israeli families, along with the assault on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, had triggered the latest hostilities that have just ended.

The language the Indian media employs to describe this scenario is rife with hypocrisy. While Hamas is declared a terrorist organisation, the state of Israel which has repeatedly used terror to subjugate the Palestinians is never so framed. There is also a shameful and opportunistic equivalence between Gaza and Israel. Take this sentence from an editorial in The Hindustan Times: “Both sides to the conflict have resorted to extreme measures to shore up public support.” This “both side-ism” is a deliberate ruse to hide Israel’s unconscionable crimes against humanity. The Asian Age editorial, incredibly, goes a step ahead, citing the rockets fired from Gaza as the “direct cause” for the escalation of hostilities.

The only time there was real outrage in the Indian media was when the 12-storeyed al-Jalaa tower, housing the offices of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press, was demolished in an Israeli air raid.  Many statements and protest petitions were issued by journalist bodies and the Editors Guild of India. While the anger over this deliberate targeting of the media is justified, the larger question of fairer media treatment of Palestine remains unanswered.

The politician’s megaphone

How important was Twitter for Donald Trump’s politics? It’s a question that has relevance for India, given Narendra Modi’s current Twitter following of 68.2 million. According to a recent piece on the portal US news website Axios, ‘Trump’s spell over the media broke once he lost his megaphones’, Twitter appears to have been a keystone of Trump’s communication edifice, with social media interactions about him having fallen 91% since January after Twitter defenestrated him. He could have regained some of that influence if Facebook’s oversight board had allowed him to rejoin the platform, but it did not.

As Trump’s ability to put out his thoughts to millions declined, he was no longer of interest to news organisations that had assiduously reported on him. As SocialFlow CEO put it to Axios, “Trump’s social media superpower was never his ability to tweet — it was his ability to get the media to cover what he tweeted.”

Also read: As COVID-19 Spreads to Rural Areas of UP, Is Yogi in Denial Mode Again?

Readers write in…

Covering Israel and Gaza

A letter (edited for size) from Aditya Dhillon who describes himself as “a concerned citizen”: “Being quite a regular reader of The Wire always compels the perusal of facts… However, when the attention of the reader was turned towards the coverage of the recent resurrection of the conflict between Israel and Gaza, the reader discovered a somewhat all-too-familiar duality in the representation of the conflict…The reader feels that often the synthesis of objectivity with partisanship creates a mostly objective narrative, but not one which displays the entire canvas. In an age where the burden of ideology and the blindness of partisanship have clouded human judgement, the media have a responsibility towards presenting a contextually objective image. In the present case, The Wire could have represented the said issue within a more cohesive context…

The Palestinian people have the moral precept of an aggrieved injustice on their side, and Israel has heaped a lot misery on them; the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, the colonisation of the lands and the violent way in which they have treated the Palestinians. However, what cannot be denied is that within this moral precept, Palestinian individuals and institutions have lost themselves to the cause. Black September, the collaboration with militant terroristic groups such as the Red Army Faction which led to the hijacking of a German domestic airline plane, the suicide bombings of the second intifada and presently the targeting of Israeli civilians in response to the brutal Israeli displacement of Palestinians at Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa, compel the reader to ask a few simple questions.

A Palestinian man looks on at the site of an Israeli air strike in Gaza City. Photo: Reuters

We talk about Palestinian lives lost, people living in concentration camps in the West Bank and many more atrocities perpetrated by the Israeli State, but does state terrorism justify its retaliation through the application of counter terrorism? Does Hamas have a moral or political justification to kill Israeli children on account of the Israeli state executing Palestinian civilians? …Are we all so morally disposed towards the Palestinian people, which in some aspects we should be, that we completely forget the amoral actions perpetrated by individuals and institutions seemingly representing the Palestinian cause?…

Everyone has their own biases, and so does the reader, but the reader has tried to be as objective as possible and feels the need for as much objectivity as possible, even in the ambit of a dualist perspective…

Release Rozina Islam now!

South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights defenders, on the arrest of Rozina Islam:  “SAHR expresses concern over the arrest of the Senior Correspondent of the daily newspaper, Prothom Alo, Rozina Islam under the draconian Official Secrets Act. She was allegedly confined for over five hours at the Bangladesh Secretariat and harassed by health ministry officials, after which she fell ill.

“SAHR vehemently condemns such harassment and calls on Bangladesh authorities to provide necessary facilities for her safety and well-being in detention until released. Rozina was accused of taking pictures of official documents containing important state information, which she has denied, and of committing offences under the Official Secrets Act 1923. SAHR has learned that Rozina had been reporting on corruption and mismanagement in the health sector for the past month. Under international human rights law, journalists cannot be vilified for their work and for exercising their freedom of speech. The Government of Bangladesh must stop intimidating journalists and media personnel for doing their duty and using vague definitions from deeply flawed acts to harass and impose restrictions on critical voices.  SAHR urges the Government of Bangladesh to immediately drop all charges against Rozina Islam, to release her from custody, and to hold a prompt and impartial inquiry into the harassment allegations and to take action against those responsible.

Also read: What Government’s New COVID Advisory Doesn’t Say Is as Important As What It Does

Calling out the source

G.L. Krishna writes: “My article on Ayurveda was published by you last year (https://science.thewire.in/the-sciences/ayurveda-needs-an-intellectual-reinvention/). Recently, I happened to read two articles (here and here) in The Wire Science, both by Shyama Rajagopal, on how current ayurvedic practice is irrational. But, I was appalled to see that they respectfully quote people who are themselves champions of pseudoscience. Here are the pieces I am referring to:

“Both these pieces quote one Dr Remya Krishnan. Has The Wire Science examined her views on science? Did Shyama Rajagopal read at least one independent essay authored by Remya Krishnan before quoting her as an authority? Here is an article authored by Remya Krishnan. After reading it, if you still feel that the articles were right in quoting people like her, you may kindly have an invited article from her. That would be the best proof of what I have said.

‘A’ of the Alphabet

An observation from Jaikumar Radhakrishnan: “I watched the recent video where Mitali Mukherjee spoke to P Chidambaram (‘Watch | ‘Modi Government a Prisoner of Ignorance and Its Own Fears’: P. Chidambaram’, May 16). Towards the end, both the anchor and the guest used the word ‘alphabet’ while discussing the potential for different parts of the economy to grow. They suggested that ‘V’, ‘W’ and ‘K’ are alphabets. They are not. They are letters, characters or symbols of the English alphabet. So we say that ‘A’ is the first letter of the English alphabet, not ‘A’ is the first English alphabet. The alphabet is the collection of letters. Referring to letters as alphabets is generally harmless in everyday language, but in technical discussions (especially in linguistics and computer science), maintaining this distinction is important. I suggest that The Wire use letter/character/symbol instead of ‘alphabet’ to refer to ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, etc. Also, please pass on this suggestion to Ms. Mukherjee.”

Sputnik concern

Niraj Vashi, from Surat, on Sputnik V: “I am an admirer of the good work done by The Wire. I therefore wish to bring to your notice an important risk associated with the Sputnik V vaccine. The highly reputed journal, The Lancet, published an article a few months ago that the COVID-19 vaccines which use AD5 viral vector (used in 2nd dose of Sputnik) pose a risk of high risk to susceptibility of HIV infection.”

“I was surprised to note that the Indian media in their interviews done with RDIF CEO, Kirill Dimitriev, have not asked this question. Also, the Indian government does not appear to have taken this into consideration. A clarification from Sputnik manufacturers on this is necessary in public interest.”

Plasma is no cure

Ashok Mahadevan wants a clarification: “Why is Wire Hindi video on COVID-19 asking people who have recovered from the disease to donate their plasma when your portal has published a letter to the Scientific Advisor to the Government of India from experts saying that there is no evidence that plasma therapy helps–and in fact may make matters worse?”

Also read: ‘If People Can’t Breathe, What Will They Do With a New Parliament?’

Pro-life, please

Carol Jacob’s responded to a piece carried by The Wire in 2017 which observed: “On February 28, 2017, the Supreme Court refused to allow a woman to abort her 26-week-old foetus that would be born with Down syndrome, a congenital disorder that postpones the onset of developmental and intellectual features. Admitting that the child may suffer from physical and mental abnormalities, the bench said that their hands are tied by law.

“Apropos your piece titled, ‘India’s Abortion laws need to change and in the pro-choice direction’ (May 11, 2017). If that foetus has Down syndrome, does it make it any less deserving of life? Does it make it any less human? You assert the fact that people with abnormalities have no right to live in this world and are better off dead. Next time while writing such stories, kindly show some humanity. Above all, do remember that everyone deserves life, born or unborn.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in