Media

Fake News, Quackery Mar India's COVID Fight but Government is Doing Nothing About Infodemic

While social media is full of disinformation about COVID-19, none of which has prompted corrective measures from the government, the IT ministry's only warning on 'false news' and misinformation is on the use of the term 'Indian variant' for B.1.167.

Yoga guru-turned-businessman Baba Ramdev has created yet another controversy about COVID-19 deaths in India. “More people died because of allopathic treatment than those who died of oxygen shortage or because of COVID-19,” he claimed on Friday. This has invited sharp criticism from the Resident Doctors Association (RDA) of AIIMS-Delhi and Safdarjung Hospital. “All this is being done by Swami Ramdev to create fear amongst the public to sell his illegal and unapproved drug,” alleged the Indian Medical Association in a scathing reply to the godman’s claims.

Earlier, social media users were stunned by Ramdev’s insensitive comments about COVID-19 patients dying due to the lack of oxygen cylinders. “People are looking for oxygen outside while the whole universe is filled with it. God has given you two oxygen cylinders (lungs) right here. Take it, you fool,” he said. He even claimed that he has increased oxygen levels of patients, whose oxygen saturation dropped to 70-80, to 100 through various yoga techniques.

In an interview to ABP News, he claimed that he knows hundreds of people, including Aaj Tak anchor Rohit Sardana, who died because of an overdose of medicines like Remdesivir.

In June 2020, Ramdev claimed Coronil, a mixture of medicinal herbs produced by his company, Patanjali, as the ultimate cure for COVID-19. He said that 69% of COVID-19 positive patients who received Coronil doses recovered and tested negative in three days. Ramdev also claimed that his product was recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), a claim the WHO publicly denied.

Amidst growing flak, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and AYUSH inistry distanced themselves from Ramdev’s claims. The government later ordered Patanjali to refrain from advertising ‘Coronil’ as a COVID-19 cure till the claims are duly examined. Acharya Balkrishna, the CEO of Patanjali later backtracked on the claim that it would treat coronavirus. But by now several mainstream media channels had already advertised these misleading claims, giving hours of coverage to Ramdev and Coronil.

Later, the government allowed it to be used as an “immunity booster”. Patanjali then claimed that the government had accepted Coronil as a “supporting drug” for COVID-19. In February this year, Ramdev held another event. This time health minister Harsh Vardhan was present on the stage with Ramdev. The claims were repeated that Coronil could prevent and treat COVID-19. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) heavily criticised the promotion of an “unscientific medicine” in the presence of the health minister.

While it is clear that this is not the first instance when Ramdev has expressed his problematic opinions about the pandemic, he is not the only one to make such claims. India’s right-wing is rife with conspiracy theories, hatred, quackery, pseudo-scientific messages, and given the crazy reach of these influencers, their fatal propaganda can plunge India into a deeper crisis.

Yet the only advisory the IT ministry has issued to social media companies is to block usage of the term ‘Indian variant’ for the B.1.167 variant of the coronavirus.

Depopulation propaganda and quackery

A Facebook page called ‘Citizen vs. Government’ broadcasts all sorts of dangerous conspiracies about the pandemic every day. On May 1, it shared a clip from a prime time programme by Sudarshan TV where the editor of the news channel Suresh Chavhanke “exposed” Bill Gates as the mastermind of the COVID-19 conspiracy against India. This video has over 1.4 million views on YouTube. He outlined Gates’s so-called plan to depopulate the world in a secret meeting called “Event 201”. Fact checkers have already exposed all these claims as false.

The Wire trawled through the social media profiles of the panelist Virender Singh who had supported these claims. Virender Singh, a YouTuber, had shared several videos on his channel about COVID-19 conspiracies. On his website, he praised Tanzania leader John Magufuli who died recently. Magufuli was one of the most notorious coronavirus deniers in the world and after his death, the BBC reported about claims that he may have succumbed to COVID-19.

The infamous “internet doctor”, Biswajit Roy Chaudhary, was banned by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for his “unscientific and potentially harmful” videos. However, he still features in several videos making misleading claims about the pandemic. Experts say his claims on masks, vaccines and the virus can even be fatal.

Tarun Kothari, who also claims to be a doctor, has also featured in several viral videos claiming that the coronavirus is a “big conspiracy”. Along with Biswajit, he promotes the theory that masks and vaccines are injurious to health.

A website called awakenIndiamovement is spreading disinformation about social distancing, masks and vaccines. It demands: “No lockdown, no social distancing, no masks, and no testing”.

Also read: Fake News and Communal Incitement Add Fuel to Post-poll Fire in West Bengal

In the same series – supposedly intended to spread ‘positivity’ – Suresh Chavhanke hosted one Kalicharan Maharaj who claimed, “The coronavirus is not a dangerous pandemic. It is a ploy to loot. People are dying more of fear. It is nothing more than a flu and some people are being killed. They don’t let the families check the dead bodies. They wrap the bodies so much that you don’t even know if it has been cut and torn or if it’s the real body or not. More people are dying because the media is spreading negativity and fake propaganda.”

 

In the show, Kalicharan Maharaj recommends people follow Biswajit Roy Chaudhary and Tarun Kothari, and also claims that Coronil cures COVID-19. He even claimed that he kissed a COVID positive person on his forehead and didn’t catch the virus. He further said that if anyone does the same, it’s completely safe. 

Under the influence of a viral message claiming that lemon juice can kill the coronavirus, a school teacher in Raichur had died. He was allegedly influenced by former MP and BJP leader Vijay Sankeshwar who had advocated lime juice inhalation to prevent oxygen shortage.

And last week, doctors warned against the infamous cow dung therapy to treat COVID-19, saying that it may accentuate black fungal infection, a severe post-COVID complication that doctors say is linked to the excessive use of steroids at an early stage of infection.

Second COVID wave as an ‘attempt to destabilise India’

On the one hand, social media is packed with disinformation about the coronavirus and its treatments and on the other, there is a clarion call to neutralise those who are reporting and writing about the Modi government’s mismanagement and failure to control the pandemic. A long viral WhatsApp text message is being widely shared, claiming that the “second wave is a biological war and a well-planned conspiracy to destabilise India and dethrone Modi”. The messages links COVID 2.0 with the Black Lives Matter movement, global arms lobby, global pharmaceutical mafia, global “petro-islamist” lobby and the “Tukde tukde and Toolkit gang” of India. It uses all sorts of deranged logical fallacies to prove that the whole world is conspiring against Modi. 

This message was first shared by a right-wing social media influencer named Abhi Athawale who is followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and finance minister Nirmala Sitaraman on Twitter. With every claim he has attached a link to sound credible. However, none of these conjectures are connected and are misrepresented.

In a video viewed by thousands of people, Deepak Singh of the Hindu force, whose role in inciting the violence in northeast Delhi has been documented by The Wire, parroted all these claims and called upon nationalists to stand behind Prime Minister Modi and save India from this conspiracy.

In another video on YouTube and Facebook posted by the channel ‘We support Pushpendra Kulshreshta’, commentator Major General G.D. Bakshi suggests that this is a “biological war” to harm Modi’s image and bring down his government through anarchy just like Trump’s government was defeated.

Also read: In the Era of Fake News, We Must Celebrate the Journalist in Karl Marx

Pushpendra Kulshreshta, the host of this channel and infamous “anti-Muslim” preacher on YouTube, said that “anti-India” journalists have aligned with the enemy to create dissatisfaction against Modi. He even hinted that the DM who misbehaved with a family in Tripura was a part of a larger conspiracy to make people lose their trust in public institutions.

More recently, several senior BJP leaders alleged that the Congress circulated a “toolkit” to corner the Modi government and defame India. Several fact-check reports have found the claims to be false, and BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra’s tweet about the “toolkit” has been flagged as”manipulated media” by Twitter.

In the past, we have seen several examples where the right-wing has hunted for scapegoats, found foreign hands in internal crises and helped the government evade accountability. Last year, the Tablighi Jamaat was witch-hunted and blamed by the mainstream media and right-wing for wilfully spreading the coronavirus. Quashing various criminal cases filed against the Jamaat, the Bombay high court observed that the Jamaat was made a scapegoat.

More recently, 17 Muslim employees were fired from the COVID war room in Bengaluru after BJP MP Tejasvi Surya blamed them for corruption in bed allotment, giving it a communal slant. Pertinently, it started after a viral WhatsApp message with these names was circulated. As of now, it’s clear that these employees had nothing to do with the allotment.

While India is struggling to fight the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, giving a freehand to motivated disinformation will surely stall this fight. We must recall WHO’s director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus’ warning: “We’re not just fighting a pandemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”

Alishan Jafri is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. You can find him on Twitter at @AsfreeasJafri.