The word ‘unprecedented’ only mildly captures the year 2020. The coronavirus pandemic did more than confine the privileged inside their homes and leave the destitute to their fates. It has changed the way we live.

However, in a year mired with communal riots, student protests, civil rights movements and vilification of minorities, COVID-19 may not be the sole defining point for India.

The past year is a reminder of mainstream media’s role in spreading misinformation. Unrestrained ‘news’ anchors screamed at television screens, feeding erroneous information to millions. From the start of the year with protests against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) to the ongoing farmers’ protest, mainstream journalists have remained at the forefront of airing misleading pro-government propaganda.

Misinformation trends of 2020

This report will list the top pieces of misinformation debunked by Alt News. The compilation has been broken down into various sub-sections as follows:

1. Misinformation surrounding CAA protests, Delhi riots and violence at Jamia and JNU.

2. Misinformation around coronavirus and the vilification of the Muslim community.

3. Misleading media reports during the displacement of migrant workers due to COVID-19 lockdown.

4. Medical misinformation shared in the wake of COVID-19.

5. Media misinformation on India-China dispute.

6. False news surrounding farmers’ protest.

7. Attempts to legitimise ‘love jihad’.

Misinformation surrounding CAA protests, Delhi riots and violence at Jamia and JNU

The two months prior to the pandemic taking over our lives saw an overwhelming amount of disinformation related to protests against the CAA, violence at Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the Delhi riots.

The most widespread narrative used to discredit the anti-CAA movement was that the women at Shaheen Bagh were paid to protest. National in-charge of social media at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Amit Malviya’s tweet carrying a video of a ‘sting’ disclosing that the women were accepting Rs 500 each was debunked via a joint investigation by Alt News and Newslaundry. While mainstream news channels Times Now, Republic and India Today debated on the ‘sting’, it was nothing more than three people spreading rumours standing outside a shop in Delhi.

A similar video of relief distribution to those affected in the riots was shared as the Muslim community accepting bribes.

Members and supporters of the BJP shared these clips that still adorn their timelines.

In a report published months after the riots, Alt News interviewed a man who had made several objectionable posts during the communal riots. The report showed how radicalisation was linked to disinformation. Sudesh Thakur, associated with the far-right group Hindu Raksha Dal, cited the same video of relief distribution to discredit the protests.

Furthermore, false claims of Muslim women selling drugs and engaging in prostitution were also widespread at the time. Jamia scholar and anti-CAA protestor Safoora Zaragar’s pregnancy was used to question her marriage. Even as Zargar’s personal life has no bearing on her politics, Twitter was flooded with sexist remarks targetting the activist.

Times Now aired a video of a man firing at a Muslim mob with the false claim that he was anti-CAA protestor shooting at cops.

We also published a report on ANI’s skewed coverage of protests against the CAA held abroad. While the news agency regularly aired visuals of people coming out in support of the law, large protests opposing the legislation were overlooked.

Mainstream media was found airing misleading news about the December 2019 police violence at Jamia as well. Following the release of a CCTV footage by Jamia Coordination Committee, India Today attempted to dilute police brutality by portraying that miscreants had gathered in a reading room and the police followed them. The channel only showed students blocking the door but not police ruthlessly charging at them after entering the room by force. Moreover, the channels mixed visuals of two different floors.

A plethora of media outlets and pro-government online portals also misreported a wallet in a student’s hand during police lathi-charge as a stone.

Journalists were at the forefront of sharing misleading news after JNU violence on the intervening night of January 5-6. Vikas Bhadauria of ABP News and public broadcaster Prasar Bharati falsely suggested that the violence was sparked after Left parties attacked ABVP. But the video below shows an ABVP member assaulting an AISA student.

During a January 10 press conference by Delhi police on JNU violence, DCP (Crime) Joy Tirkey laid down the purported sequence of events that led to the rampage in the varsity campus. He released print-outs which had pictures of suspects. Alt News found that these were earlier circulated by RSS-affiliated ABVP members on social media in the exact print and design.

Alt News also investigated the masked woman who was shot inside JNU campus during the violence. Based on multiple corroborations, we were able to establish that ABVP activist Komal Sharma was caught on camera as part of the mob.

In another report, Alt News established a JNU student’s association with ABVP after he was caught confessing his involvement in the January 5-6 violence to India Today.

Now, coming back to protests against the CAA and the subsequent communal riots in Delhi. Home Minister Amit Shah had accepted a ‘fact-finding’ report on the Delhi riots which was replete with disinformation and cited OpIndia as a source multiple times.

But there were also instances when misinformation was used against the pro-CAA group. For instance, the Jafrabad shooter was misidentified as part of the pro-CAA mob and false claims also suggested he was spotted with BJP Delhi leader Kapil Mishra.

The Delhi police were targetted with posts sharing old clips of police excess in other states. However, it is noteworthy that the Delhi police was caught on camera thrashing injured men and forcing them to sing the national anthem during the riots.

Misinformation around coronavirus and the vilification of the Muslim community

After Delhi’s Nizamuddin was identified as a COVID-19 hotspot, social media was rife with misinformation attempting to hold the Muslim community responsible for the spread of the virus.

An FIR was filed against an elderly Muslim vendor for washing his hands using a water bottle on his vegetable cart. While the FIR said he used the same bottle to sprinkle water on fruits, the allegations were twisted on social media. He was accused of sprinkling urine.

An old video of a Sufi ritual was shared as Muslims purposely sneezing to spread coronavirus.

Several other old and unrelated videos were viral suggesting that Muslims licked utensils, scattered currency notes and spat on food to spread the infection.

An audio clip was also viral in Gujarati. It falsely claimed that Muslim vendors sprung up in Surat to spread coronavirus.

In one of our reports, we showed how a disabled Muslim man was hounded on social media, even by journalist Vikas Bhadauria and news channel TV9 Gujarati, for accidentally dropping a currency note in a petrol pump. None of the tweets was taken down despite the man showing his injury.

Another regional media outlet Public TV had aired the false news that Muslim youths in Karnataka refused COVID-19 test due to “religious reasons”. OpIndia and MyNation also carried the story. The claim was based on the statement of a localite and the channel did not bother to speak with local health workers. Alt News contacted multiple authorities and found this information to be false.

A similar claim was widespread by regional Hindi outlets News24, Punjab Kesari, Amar Ujala, Times Now Hindi and News18. They misreported that Muslim foreign nationals from Iran, Italy and China were hiding inside a mosque in Bihar during coronavirus pandemic. However, they were from Krygyzstan and had arrived in India before the first coronavirus case was reported in the country.

The COVID-19 outbreak also witnessed false claims circulating among the Muslim community that Muslims do not contract the virus. Viral messages suggested that non-Muslims are offering Namaz, US President Donald Trump offered Islamic prayers and China lifted the ban on the Quran in the wake of the pandemic.

Misleading media reports during the displacement of migrant workers due to COVID-19 lockdown.

The displacement of labourers after the central government announced a sudden lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 saw mainstream channels airing false news. On April 14, ABP Majha’s reporter Rahul Kulkarni was among the 11 people arrested by Mumbai police for their alleged role in “rumour-mongering” that was believed to have led nearly 2,000 migrant workers to gather near Bandra station. The reporter had cited an internal railways document to claim that special trains would transport stranded migrants back home. ABP Group’s Hindi channel ABP News also broadcasted the visuals and dubbed the gathering as a “conspiracy” due to the presence of a mosque near the station. Later in the day, ABP News journalist Rubika Liyaquat did a Facebook live from the official Facebook page of ABP News and rubbished the rumour that the Muslim community had gathered at the station. The ABP Group spread rumours, blamed the Muslim community for the rumours and subsequently debunked the rumours all in a day’s time.

After several migrant workers passed away in Shramik special trains, the government’s fact-checking wing PIB Fact Check declared news reports on the deaths as false. PIB claimed that the deceased persons were either suffering from pre-existing medical conditions or had recently undergone treatment. But the outlet did not provide any medical reports to support its claim. Alt News fact-checked four of PIB’s ‘fact-checks’ and found that three of them were unsubstantiated.

In another ‘fact-check’, PIB claimed that the family of 23-year-old Arvina Khatoon who died in a Shramik train said that she had long-term illness. Alt News spoke with Khatoon’s father, mother, sister-in-law and bother — all of whom refuted the government’s narrative.

The pandemic also saw the Solicitor General (SG) of India quoting a WhatsApp forward in the Supreme Court to target journalists critical of the government’s handling of the crisis.

Medical misinformation shared in the wake of COVID-19

The outbreak of coronavirus saw the spread of medical misinformation including the promotion of alternative treatment promising the prevention of the disease. One of the most widespread claims was that homeopathic drug Arsenicum Album 30 boosts immunity. While the AYUSH Ministry emphasized the use of the drug, no scientific research suggests Arsenicum Album 30 will boost immunity in humans or in animals to protect against infectious diseases.

The AYUSH Ministry also promoted the use of Kwath or Kadha to ‘boost’ immunity in the fight against COVID-19. Alt News Science published a report explaining that a healthy diet and lifestyle help in maintaining the immunity that we innately possess but there is no way to pop a pill or drink kadha to ‘boost’ the immune system. The term ‘immunity booster’ has no basis in medical science, yet remains widely used by the Ministry of AYUSH and the media alike.

Home remedies suggested by ayurveds were also debunked by Alt News Science. Other widespread false claims that COVID-19 is a bacterial infection, WHO claimed that asymptomatic patients cannot spread the virus and that coronavirus is man-made were also debunked at length.

Alt News Science further investigated the evidence submitted by Patanjali to claim that Cornil can act as a cure for COVID-19.

Media misinformation on India-China dispute

A deadly face-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Galwan valley on June 15 led to the deaths of 20 Indian army men. The casualties suffered on the Chinese side, on the other hand, were left to much speculation by the Chinese government thus giving rise to misinformation. On August 31, however, Aaj Tak claimed to have obtained ‘exclusive’ imagery that proves “40 PLA soldiers” were killed in the cross-border skirmish. Aaj Tak’s English counterpart India Today also broadcast similar visuals. Times Now claimed, “Photos of 106 PLA tombstones reveal [the] extent of Chinese casualties in June 15 Galwan clash.” Swarajya penned an article based on Times Now’s reportage. NewsX and ABP News also broadcast shows where they claimed over 30 graves of Chinese soldiers who died in Galwan clashes were discovered.

As it turned out, the imagery depicted the Chinese military cemetery in Kangxiwa town that contains graves of PLA soldiers martyred in the 1962 Indian-Sino war.

Prior to this, several mainstream media outlets and journalists claimed “43 Chinese troops were killed” in the face-off. The claim was based on news agency ANI’s tweet which quoted “sources” and claimed that the Chinese have suffered 43 casualties, including the dead and injured. The news became viral even as neither the Chinese side nor any prominent Indian defence journalist had confirmed the number of casualties in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The next day saw another unverified casualty number on the Chinese side — 5. The source of this ‘news’ was an Indian account and the unverified information was amplified by Indian media and journalists.

However, the most absurd ‘news’ that reached viewers was Times Now reading out names of dead Chinese soldiers from a WhatsApp forward.

Another important story debunked by Alt News was Congress members sharing a video of the Pangong Lake on the Chinese side with the claim that the country has started tourism on the Indian side. We verified the location of the lake using Google Earth and imagery from Chinese websites.

False news surrounding farmers’ protest

The ongoing farmers’ protests against the centre’s three farm bills have sparked the circulation of sectarian misinformation that attempts to brand the farmers as pro-Pakistan and pro-Khalistan. Old videos from UK and the US were shared to promote the narrative.

It is also being claimed that the Muslim community is behind the agitation that isn’t really led by farmers. An old photo of a Muslim man in a turban was shared to falsely suggest that he participated in the protests disguised as a farmer.

A video from 2011 was also circulated with similar false claim.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also attempted to push its narrative that the farmers are satisfied with the new legislation by lifting an old photograph of a ‘smiling farmer’. The man whose image was used has been protesting at Singhu border.

BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya tweeted a clipped video to water-down police action against farmers.

Attempts to legitimise ‘love jihad’

After the Uttar Pradesh government passed an anti-conversion law to curb ‘love jihad’ cases in the state, multiple old and unrelated videos of violence against women have been making the rounds on social media to demonise the Muslim community.

An old case of a Muslim woman murdered in a case of ‘honour-killing’ was shared with the false claim that she was a Hindu woman killed after a Muslim man trapped her with the promise of love.

A domestic violence incident from Bangladesh was circulated with identical false claims.

A gruesome video of a woman hacked to death in Brazil also found its way to Indian social media.

The disinformation campaign on social media with anti-Muslim policies of the ruling party caused Hindu groups to film minors at a birthday party in MP’s Bhopal. They alluded that the Hindu girls at the party were being converted by the Muslim children.

The year 2020 was marked by propaganda against minority communities — Muslims during anti-CAA protests and Sikhs during farmers’ protest. But the promotion of anti-Muslim narrative was unparalleled. The community was blamed for the spread of COVID-19 and the ‘news’ aired by mainstream media during the peak months of the pandemic only amplified the hate-filled narrative. As the year has come to end with farmers’ protest ongoing in the national capital and the West Bengal elections around the corner, the disinformation machinery is expected to remain busy.

About the Author

Pooja Chaudhuri is a senior editor at Alt News.