Looking through 801 false and misleading claims, BOOM found that Muslims were the most frequently targetted group, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the most frequently targetted individual by fake news, in 2021.
Despite a slowdown from last year, 'Coronavirus' still remained the most dominant topic of the year, followed by topics like farmers' protest, West Bengal, Afghanistan and Uttar Pradesh.
Visuals - images and videos - were the most preferred medium of sharing false/misleading claims last year. Political claims - the most dominant category of false claims last year - were predominantly shared with images, while communal claims were most frequently shared with videos.
Following the 'infodemic' of 2020, BOOM has been looking closely at misinformation trends through analyses of its fact-checks. Our past studies, along with our monthly reports, have highlighted and revealed relevant trends in the mis/disinformation cycle. We decided to continue this practice, and apply it to all the fact-checks done by us in 2021.
A Busy Year....
Like its predecessor, 2021 continued to be a gruelling year for many, including fact checkers. Events like the farmers' protests, second wave of coronavirus, Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, and state elections have kept the mis/disinformation cycle in India in full throttle.
We did 801 fact checks throughout the year.
Out of them, 708 were done on new claims, while 93 of them were done on old claims being revived.
Seeing Is Believing..
A consistent observation made in our free weekend newsletter (click here to subscribe) was the widespread use of visuals - photos and videos - to make false claims.
Our annual data further confirms this trend.
89% of the claims we fact checked were shared with either an image (363 claims), or a video (350 claims).
Only 9% of the claims were shared solely with texts (72 claims). The number of such claims shared with audio were at a nearly negligible 3.
PM Modi - The Most Fact Checked Public Speaker
We also closely inspected public speeches or announcements made by public figures, mostly politicians, and found a number of instances to correct a false or misleading claim.
We did 13 such fact checks on some claims made by these public figures. The highest number of such fact checks were done on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who made four such false or misleading claims during public speeches, throughout the year.
There were some others in the list, politicians for various parties, including Chief Ministers Mamata Banerjee and Yogi Adityanath, Union Ministers Amit Shah, Mansukh Mandaviya, and Rajnath Singh, Congress leaders Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi, and some other functionaries of prominent parties.
Each of them were fact checked for their public speeches once throughout the year.
A Year Of Political And Communal Rumours
We categorised the 801 fact checks according to the the nature of the claims being made. The most dominant category of claims we saw were political, accounting for 53% of all our fact checks (421 claims).
This was followed by communal and health-related claims, accounting for 21% (166 claims) and 7% (59 claims) of all our fact checks, respectively.
A range of other Disaster and Defence-related claims accounted for another 6% (51 claims together).
Top Targets Of Fake News - Muslims, and Modi
We looked at both collective and individual targets of false/misleading claims.
The group to be targetted with mis/disinformation the most were Muslims, with 126 such claims targetting them. This was followed by the BJP (39 claims), the Government (36 claims), the Taliban (31 claims), and the farmers (28).
Modi was the most targetted individual of 2021, with 50 false/misleading claims directed at him. Rahul Gandhi came next, with 10 claims against him.
This was followed by Arvind Kejriwal (9 claims), Yogi Adityanath (7 claims), Shah Rukh Khan (7 claims), and Mamata Banerjee (6 claims).
Target List Linked To Real Life Events
We further distributed the claims per target according to the months - the trends revealed the that targetting of false and misleading claims very closely replicated real life events that dominated the news cycle.
One of the noticeable spikes in targetting of groups and entities were for 'farmers', who dominated the target list in January, at the height of the farmers' protests. Bengal's TMC was the top target of mis/disinformation in the months of April and May, during and after the West Bengal elections.
Claims targetting the Taliban saw a huge spike in August and September, during and after the militia's takeover of Afghanistan. Claims targetting Muslims, which were consistent throughout the year, saw a major spike in October and December.
Targets Are Usually Portrayed Negatively
We also further categorised the claims according to the sentiments it presented towards its target - as positive, negative and neutral.
We found that false and misleading claims overwhelmingly tend to portray its target in negative light, accounting for 65% of our fact checks (520 claims). This was followed by neutral claims, that did not portray any specific sentiments towards its target with the false or misleading information, accounting for 21% of our fact checks (169 claims). Claims that portrayed its target in a positive light were at the end of the list, accounting for only 14% of our fact checks (112 claims).
Among the groups or entities who were targetted positively using the false or misleading claim, we also noticed some further trends.
The Indian Central government was at the top of the list, 23 false or misleading claims were made throughout the year, in an attempt to show the government in a positive light. This was followed by Modi, with 13 false or misleading claims being made in his favour.
Farmers, who were frequently targetted in the beginning of the year, saw 10 such claims portraying them positively.
COVID Falsehoods Still Persist
The year 2021 saw a number of remarkable and shocking incidents, from the farmers' protests, to coups d'état in Myanmar and Afghanistan. Yet, the topic that dominated the topics of the claims remains COVID-19, retaining its place in the top stop for a second year in a row.
The observations on how the topics/themes of the claims trended throughout the year were highly congruent with the trends observed in the targets of misinformation.
Farmers' protest was the dominant topic in January, the same month 'farmers' were the top targets of misinformation, at the height of the farmers' protests.
'Coronavirus' saw a huge spike in April, May and June - while the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic surged across the country.
Another major spike we saw was on the topic of Afghanistan, which dominated in the months of August and September. These same months also saw 'Taliban' as the top target of misinformation.
Towards the last quarter of the year, between October and December, 'Uttar Pradesh' has become a dominant topic among false and misleading claims, signalling the influence of the upcoming legislative elections in the state. During these same months, we also observed a significant spike in claims targetting Muslims.
Some other interesting observations we made was the prevalence of 'West Bengal' as a fake news topic between March and May, highlighting the legislative elections in the state in these months.
False/misleading claims around 'Palestine' saw a spike in May, during the Israel-Palestine tensions. 'Temples' was a minor, but consistent topic throughout the year.
Political Claims - Images/Videos Shared Out Of Context
We did 421 fact checks on political claims (53%), making it the most dominant type of false/misleading claim we saw this year.
Our analyses found images to be the most recurring medium for sharing such political claims. 53% of all the political claims were shared with an image. Videos came next, with 37% of our political claims being shared with videos.
Farmers' protests and West Bengal were the leading topics of these claims, followed by Afghanistan, Uttar Pradesh and Coronavirus. Modi and BJP were found to be the top targets of political claims, followed by the government, Taliban and farmers.
Most of the political claims, were of images and videos, shared out of context (188 claims). Some of the visuals were also shared with a misleading caption or text (94 claims).
We also fact checked 64 political claims made using manipulated videos or images, while 61 more claims were made using completely fabricated information.
Islamophobia On The Rise
We did 166 fact checks on communal claims in 2021.
Our 'Target' chart shows that Islamophobic mis/disinformation is on the rise in India - Muslims were a consistent target of false and misleading claims (126 claims), and the number saw a spike in the final few months of 2021.
118 of the communal claims were targetted towards Muslims, making it the single most significant target of communal mis/disinformation. The Babri Masjid and Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, both linked to Islam by faith, were targetted with 6 communal claims together.
Entities linked to the right-wing Hindutva ideology came second, with only 9 claims targetting them, while Christians were targetted with 5 claims. The Indian Police, and its officials, were also targetted with 3 communal claims.
Fake Trend: Visuals Of Muslims Committing Crime
Communal claims were shared predominantly with videos (92 claims). Images came a second, with 61 such claims shared with photos.
Similar to political claims, most of the images and videos were shared out of context to make these communal claims (98 claims). Some of them were shared in a misleading manner as well (47 claims).
The dominant topic/theme of these communal claims is 'Crime' (16 claims). These include a series of videos and images shared to falsely or misleadingly show Muslims committing crimes. Food adulteration was yet another prominent topic (12 claims), where videos and images were shared to falsely claim that Muslims have contaminated food with bodily fluids.
Vaccines, And 2nd Wave Fuelled Health Misinfo
With the emergence of the coronavirus and the pandemic, health had become one of the most dominant topics of mis/disinformation in 2021. While the intensity of the COVID-related fake news slowed down towards the end of 2020, it made a consistent appearance throughout 2021, with spikes in certain COVID-related events such as the launch of the vaccines, or the second wave of the pandemic.
Out of the 59 health-related claims we fact checked this year, 51 of them were related to the coronavirus. While an overwhelming majority of the claims did not fit into any specific category for theme or target (they were categorised as Miscellaneous), we found 'Vaccine' to be a frequent target of false/misleading claims (9 claims), especially in January and February.
Images were the most used medium to share such health-related claims, followed by videos.
Trend For 2022: More Of UP Elections And Islamophobia
Towards the end of the year, social media was marred with false claims linked to poll-bound Uttar Pradesh. Around the same time, we also saw a similar hike in false rumours against Muslims.
Parallelly, we have also seen a rise in blatant Islamophobia in Indian politics, with major public figures making highly inflammatory statements in public, and calling for violence against Muslims.
Going forward, we should expect more such mis/disinformation against Muslims, along with false claims linked to Uttar Pradesh elections.
Furthermore, with the rise of the Omicron variant, and the emergence of a third wave, we should also expect COVID-related misinformation to persist.
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