COVID-19 had some unexpected side effects – one such side effect is the awareness it has created amongst public about “fake news” and more importantly the seriousness of spreading it without checking.
Some of the misinformation and false details regarding COVID-19 being circulated pertained treatment of the virus using home remedies to false advisories asking people to avoid certain kinds of foods such as ice cream and chicken.
The mass circulations of false and fake news regarding COVID-19 resulted in the government having to issue various advisories by way of clarifications. It also resulted in the Supreme Court passing directions in Alakh Alok Srivastava Vs. Union of India (2020 SCC OnLine SC 345) to print, television media and also social media to curb sharing of fake news. (refer to the Article on Fake News at ____ (https://www.cybersaathi.org/fake-news-in-covid19-time-supreme-court-of-india-in-alakh-alok-srivastava-vs-union-of-india/) for a detailed analysis)
Misinformation and viral sharing of fake news is not new to COVID19 times and has had very serious consequences. The Supreme Court in fact took note of this in Alakh Alok Srivastava Vs. Union of India (2020 SCC OnLine SC 345) in the light of several killings and lynch mobs in India due to whatsapp messages of child abductors causing panic amongst villagers. Such unfounded fake news has and continues to cause grave harm and loss of life.
You are probably no stranger to WhatsApp forwards. Some of them are harmless wishes for the day and some are detailed pointers on how to better protect yourself in cases of assault or bank fraud. But there is one category of this type of information that claims to be factual but is indeed fake, unverified and usually distributed with the specific intent to cause misinformation.
The motive behind spreading such ‘fake news’ could be malicious or not but they ultimately lead individuals to form certain ideas/ thoughts/ opinions or perform certain actions based on untrue information.
In recent times, fake news has been used in India to create religious tensions, promote vigilante justice and scam individuals regarding government policies and law. This has obvious negative consequences and has led to fear mongering and even the deaths of certain individuals.
Fake news can be spread through comments or messages of rumours or edited videos, memes, unverified articles or advertisements and such.
As with offences such as ‘revenge porn’, there is no specific provision that criminalises fake news. However general laws under Indian Penal Code, 1860 and also provisions such as Section 66F (cyber terrorism) may be invoked depending on the criminal intent and purpose of dissemination / sharing of fake news. For instance section 153A IPC may be invoked if such fake news promotes enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence or language or causes disharmony, riots or loss of life. Provisions such as Criminal conspiracy (S.120B IPC) or aiding and abetting an offence could also be invoked.
When such fake news is being spread using digital mediums, the intermediary guidelines will also be applicable, which places the responsibility for restricting such acts on the social media platforms and chat apps. Intermediaries (such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, etc) have a duty to provide for reporting in cases where fake news is identified under the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 and the draft amendments made thereto in 2018. Section 79(2)(c) of the IT Act also mentions that Intermediaries must act with due diligence. Most popular news agencies nowadays have their own fact-checking divisions as well. Refer to the detailed analysis on the Article on Fake News at ___ (https://www.cybersaathi.org/fake-news-in-covid19-time-supreme-court-of-india-in-alakh-alok-srivastava-vs-union-of-india/).
As with all other forms of Criminal offices, spreading of fake news can have serious ramifications. Even casual and unthinking sharing can cause loss of life. It is very important to inculcate the cyber hygiene of verifying news articles before sharing. It is also important to bring prosecutions against persons wilfully committing such acts with intent to cause loss of life, harm or to create alarm in the minds of public.
Victims should initiate civil and criminal proceedings and demonstrate that criminals can be brought to book. Else such serious offences not only go unpunished but will be setting worrisome precedents for others to launch such or more aggravated attacks.
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