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Whatsapp journalism in the times of coronavirus

In the last decade or so, the impact of social media has gone from mere entertaining to an integrated part of our lives. As the world fights the COVID-19 pandemic, social media is fighting a battle of its own – the battle of fake news.

In its all-encompassing devastation, the Coronavirus has created a huge crisis in the world of social media with a tsunami of false information. Some fakes are quite serious (and have also been dealt with by the stakeholders) while others can leave you in splits.

There are ‘conspiracy theories’ of Covid-19 being created in a laboratory in China so that it can become the biggest superpower or the one involving celebrities in the US claiming falsely that the coronavirus was linked to the 5G technology.

Closer home, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to express gratitude for and applaud the frontline workers with claps and clanging utensils along with a Janta Curfew was followed by a fake “message from NASA” claiming that their satellite videos showing how Coronavirus has retreated in India. The message read: The cosmic level sound waves generated have been detected by NASA’s SD 13 wave detector and a recently made bio-satellite has shown COVID-19 strain diminishing and weakening!!

Many Indians were convinced with this Whatsapp forward and some in my city even went out to perform Garba to see off the deadly virus.

Many celebrities were seen promoting the ‘real reason’ behind the PM choosing 5 pm as the time for the applause. Apparently, it was the time when “the country was moving under a particular constellation of stars that would imbue the clapping and applauding exercise with special miraculous potency to help fight the virus.” There was another announcement – no prizes for guessing that this too, was from NASA – that their astronauts on international space missions could head clapping noises loud and clear from India at “11:30 a.m GMT”.

After thousands of people posted and retweeted such fake news, Twitter and the Press Information Bureau had to rush in to dismiss such claims and notions with hashtags.

If all this wasn’t ‘unscientific’ enough, my new-to-Whatsapp (and now addicted to it) uncles and aunts began forwarding ‘home remedies to beat coronavirus’ on the family groups! One of the remedies was to drink garlic juice every day. Eww.

Fake news is spreading as fast as the virus in the country. Recently, there was an audio clip claiming how vegetable vendors who have tested positive are licking vegetables to spread coronavirus. Such empty claims can be very dangerous for the impressionable.

Well-known personalities and celebrities are usually the first ones to be dragged into a fake news circus. Take the example of the wrongly attributed viral article

by philanthropist and former Chairman of Tata Sons, Mr. Ratan Tata. A picture of the 82-year-old was circulating on whatsapp with a “very motivational” quote attributed to him. Mr. Tata, who is very active on his social media handles, was quick to dismiss it as fake. He also urged netizens to believe and circulate only verified news on social media platforms.

The media crisis has further added fuel to the fire. For the first time, newspapers in the country stopped circulating because of an epidemic. There is so much fear that newspapers like the Times of India and the Hindustan Times have been putting out ads assuring readers that their product is safe and hygienic. Newspaper vendor associations did not find it safe to venture out without masks and gloves. Now that they are delivery newspapers, housing societies and residential complexes have banned their entry. Also, newspapers are now daily forwarded on Whatsapp groups. Those used to holding the newspaper in their hand along with their cup of morning tea now seem to be majorly depending on ‘Whatsapp journalism’ for their daily dose of news.

And this new form of Whatsapp journalism is causing some serious damage. A team of doctors in Indore was received with protests and pelted with stones while they were trying to trace a person who had come in touch with a Covid-19 patient. The incident, as reported by Indian Express, was sparked by fake Whatsapp videos claiming that healthy Muslims were being taken away and injected with the virus. That fake video had raised suspicions about health workers in the minds of residents of that area in Indore.

Social media may have its share of unsettling content. However, it is difficult to imagine about surviving a lockdown without social media. We may have experienced how tough it is to maintain social distancing. Imagine how life would be without the luxury of social media platforms such as Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, among others, especially during lockdown. Social media is more than entertainment. It has become an essential part of the way that billions of people get information from and connect with each other.

I recently read a helpful article on the cure for fake news amid coronavirus. Here’s the link to help you check facts before believing all that’s sent to you on your mobile: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/11/the-cure-for-fake-news-how-to-read-about-the-coronavirus

Do share it with those who matter to you. And also, share everything on social media responsibly.

Author:
Chitra Unnithan, Assistant Professor, Unitedworld School of Liberal Arts and Mass Communication (USLM)

Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.

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