The COVID-19 infodemic has brought chaos and violence to India. In late March, viral rumors about an indefinite lockdown exacerbated a mass exodus of migrant laborers. In early April, a false claim that Muslims were being injected with COVID-19 led to an attack on five medical workers.
On April 2, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs called on Indian states to fight coronavirus misinformation and prevent panic. On May 8, the ministry’s research arm released a 40-page manual intended to help Indian police in that infodemic fight.
However, the manual, which included technical tips and listed five International Fact-Checking Network signatories as resources, quickly drew fire on social media and questions from police authorities. Its short online life reflects how political and religious polarization in India has deepened mistrust and made it even more challenging to fight misinformation.
It was removed from a government website less than 24 hours after it was published. Privately, officials asserted the manual was never meant for public consumption. However, in a public response to the media, they said it contained a technical glitch and would be republished. That was 12 days ago.
The vacuum of official information about when the corrected manual will be released has led to speculation by fact-checkers and journalists alike. Some blamed criticism from Twitter users aligned with India’s ideological right wing. Others suspected a dispute over an infamous audio clip.
Political pressure on Twitter
The document’s recommendation of IFCN fact-checkers generated immediate disagreement because some are perceived to be biased against Prime Minister Narenda Modi. The IFCN’s signatories are vetted yearly on the Code of Principles — 31 criteria used to evaluate bias, transparency of sources, organizational structure, funding, methodology, and corrections policy. Organizations that do not meet these criteria are not certified by the IFCN. Each organization’s application and assessment are listed on the Code of Principles website to enable the public to make their own assessments.
The Bureau of Police Development and Research cited Alt News, BOOM, Factly, The Quint, and India Today as, “Fake News Spotting and Fact-Checking resources.” in its manual. All are IFCN-approved signatories.
The inclusion of Alt News, in particular, immediately sparked online outrage.
“We cannot let snakes dictate our discourse,” commented one Twitter user.
“A strong message has been sent to entire MHA burecracy that this kind of mistakes won’t be tolerated,” read another.
Alt News is no stranger to criticism from India’s right-wing political ecosystem. It’s been called “Muslim propaganda,” by conservative news outlet OpIndia, and faced backlash from conservative commentators like Suresh Chavhanke, who is frequently fact-checked. OpIndia applied in 2019 for certification from the IFCN; its application was rejected due to bias.
Alt-News co-founder Pratik Sinha’s family connections have also inspired skepticism. Sinha’s father Mukul led the investigation into Prime Minister Modi for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Sinha says he believes longstanding animosity against his organization forced the BPRD to retract the manual.
Fellow IFCN signatory and Indian fact-checking organization The Quint offered a different explanation. It reported that sources within the BPRD said the document was intended for internal purposes only rather than public consumption. Sinha, however, was skeptical of this claim.
“If it was a technical error, they would have to correct that error and republish the document, which hasn’t happened,” Sinha said. He speculated that the internal document claim relieves pressure on the agency to release a revised copy. As of May 19, nothing has been released.
“It can’t take that long if it was just a technical error — unless they’re redoing the entire document,” Sinha said.
The disputed audio clip
A viral audio’s authenticity could also be a reason the manual was withdrawn. The clip caused a dispute between the news publication The Indian Express and the New Delhi Police Department.
An audio clip suggesting that Muslims ignore social distancing went viral April 1. It was purported to be from the leader of Muslim missionary group Tablighi Jamaat — whose large mid-March gathering has been tied to several COVID-19 hotspots throughout India.
On Saturday, May 9, the Indian Express reported the initial investigation by the New Delhi Police determined the clip was doctored. The story quoted police sources and the misinformation manual, which used the audio as an example of manipulated media.
The police department denied the report that its investigation determined the audio was fake. The manual was taken down soon after. The Indian Express asked if it disappeared because of the inclusion of the Tablighi Jamaat audio clip. The department said it was a technical issue, but refused to give specifics.
On May 10, the New Delhi Police called in Indian Express reporter Mahender Singh Manral for questioning and threatened him with prosecution if he did not comply.
On May 13, the Editors Guild of India condemned the police in a statement calling its actions against Manral a “deeply disturbing” infringement on India’s free press. The Press Council of India followed up two days later with its own statement calling for a full report on the facts of Manral’s questioning.