The massive surge in fake news, videos, GIFs and authentic-looking government notifications related to coronavirus (COVID-19) in India has left millions of users, civil society members, journalists and authorities completely baffled and cornered, starting with panic buying across the country.
Two top physicians in the country -- Medanta Medicity's Dr. Naresh Trehan and Narayana Health's Dr Devi Shetty -- found themselves helpless when fake news around them took the social media by storm on Thursday.
A fake audio clip of famous cardiac surgeon Dr. Shetty on prevention of the deadly virus went viral on Instagram. Narayana Health Hospital took to Twitter and clarified this is not Shetty's voice and that it has been wrongly attributed to him.
Earlier in the day, debunking a fake viral message, attributed to eminent heart surgeon Dr Trehan claiming that national emergency will be declared soon and people must collect cash, food and medicines, the doctor clarified it was "absolutely incorrect".
If the exponential rise in fake coronavirus messages and posts continues for some more days, the nation can face serious law and order problems and the government must wake up now and immediately fix the responsibility on social media companies, asking them to act fast to tackle the circulation of fake health information, according to leading cyber-security experts.
"There is a deluge of fake information on Facebook and WhatsApp as India fights this global health pandemic. Dedicated cybercriminal groups are spreading panic and the Indian government is helpless. Daily supplies are getting over fast as cybercriminals piggybacked on Dr Trehan's popularity to send fake letter out and created panic," Pavan Duggal, one of the nation's top cyber law experts, told IANS.
"Why can't the government fix the onus on Facebook and its subsidiaries the way Malaysia and Singapore have done? And why can't WhatsApp stop group forwarding altogether in India for the time being? This global health situation needs drastic measures to be taken but social media players are having a free party in India," said Duggal.
In an attempt to combat the viral spread of false information, WhatsApp has limited the number of times a user can forward a message to five. According to Duggal, forwarding must be stopped completely keeping the gravity of the situation in mind that can lead to riots.
Facebook-owned WhatsApp on Wednesday launched a Coronavirus Information Hub and announced a $1 million donation to the Poynter Institute's International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).
Facebook said it will put vetted information about novel coronavirus at the top of users' New Feed to tackle the spread of fake health information.
However, these measures are insufficient in a country like India with over 400 million WhatsApp users and over 300 million Facebook users.
Virag Gupta, a lawyer who is arguing the case in Supreme Court for data localisation in India, said that it is not difficult to find the minds behind such irresponsible content that create panic, but there has to be a strong will on the part of the government to act.
"It is not difficult for the government to reach the original source behind such fake posts going viral but that we do not see this happening on the ground. Telling WhatsApp to remove certain posts or blocking certain accounts won't serve the purpose as they will come forward, saying we have removed such and such harmful posts but the real problem will remain," Gupta told IANS.
According to Anoop Mishra, one of the nation's leading social media experts, social media platforms, especially tools like WhatsApp with active monthly users over 400 million, are turning into a factory of spreading half-cooked and misleading information.
"Group social influencers and social agencies are purposely creating content and videos for Tik Tok, YouTube and Facebook aiming for the high click conversion and visibility prospects, just for the purpose of monetization and using these platforms as a content carrier," lamented Mishra.
The government should instruct these companies to hold features like share video/image contents until the global pandemic situation improves, he added.