It has been just over a year since India saw its first nationwide lockdown, and the fresh rise in infection rates in some Indian cities like Mumbai is giving way to yet another round of panic about transmissions, availability of vaccines, lockdowns and the possible further effect on livelihoods. And just like last year, such panic is providing a breeding ground for misinformation/disinformation campaigns.
We recently analysed 314 fact checks done by us on false or misleading claims around COVID-19 since January 26, 2020, and found that while there has been a dip in COVID-19-related fact checks since August, 2020, the numbers have started rising since January - with vaccines and lockdowns being the most common topics.
April 2020 Still Remains The Busiest, But....
While the number COVID-19-related fact checks have gone up and down over the past year, April 2020 still remains the busiest month - we did 87 fact checks over 30 days.
Our first study, released in May 2020, had previously revealed that this month saw an infestation of fake news around Muslims in India deliberately spreading the virus, after an event by Islamic missionary group Tablighi Jamaat was deemed a virus super-spreader, with over 4000 cases being linked to it.
On another note, while communal misinformation remains one of the most popular topic of COVID-19 mis/disinformation, such claims were only seen in the month of April 2020.
Adding to the already viral fake news around COVID-19 cures and treatments, along with misleading information on lockdowns, the communal misinformation we saw in April heavily contributed to the increase in fake news around the virus, making it the busiest month for fact checkers in terms of treating COVID-19-related fake news.
Lockdown-Related & Communal Fake News - Hot Topics
We further divided the claims into 23 separate topics. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the most widespread topics of fake news were lockdown and pandemic-related restrictions, communal claims, and health-related advice.
48 fact checks were done on fake news around lockdowns and restrictions, making it the most common topic for misinformation - most of them were fake notification or alerts, or provided misleading information on movement restrictions.
Communal claims were the second most popular topic, on which 43 fact checks were done. Such claims were prevalent mostly in the months of April and May 2020, after the fallout of the Tablighi Jamaat event.
Health is yet another topic which drew the attention of the fake news factories. Towards the beginning of the pandemic, health-related misinformation was rampant on social media - they provided fake preventive methods against the virus, fake advises from doctors, and false remedies to the yet-novel disease.
Videos Dominate The Fakery
One of the more striking results from our study was the prevalence of videos in disseminating COVID-19-related fake news. 127 out of 314 fact checks (40% of total) were done on false or misleading claims shared with one or more videos.
Most of these fact checks were on unrelated videos shared out of context to spread misinformation against Muslims (14 fact checks), or provide misleading information about lockdowns and other COVID-19-related restrictions (9 fact checks)
Images were also popular - around 92 fact checks (29.5%) were done on fake claims shared with images. The most common topic on which such claims were shared was lockdown and restrictions (17 fact checks), along with communal claims targetting Muslims (10 fact checks).
Texts were also common - 28% of our fact checks were on fake claims shared with simple text messages. Most of these messages were on health-related topics (27 fact checks) - such as fake health advices on how to prevent and treat COVID-19.
Fake claims with audio were very rare - only 6 fact checks, accounting for 1.92% of all our COVID-19 fact checks were on audio messages spreading fake news.
Misleading And Fabricated Content Steal The Show
We further divided our fact checks according to the false claims, in 7 different categories (as proposed by First Draft News founder Claire Wardle): False Context, False Connection, Fabricated Content, Misleading Content, Imposter Content, Satire, Manipulated Content.
The most popular type of COVID-19-related fake news we saw during this time was misleading content, with 84 fact checks done on such false claim, accounting for 27% of all our fact checks.
A majority of these provided misleading information to spread communal claims, health-related claims, or with misleading information about lockdown or COVID-19 related restrictions.
Following closely behind were fabricated content - posts, messages and articles that are completely false, and has been created with the sole purpose of deceiving people. Such claims accounted for 80 fact checks (25.5%) out 314.
Examples of such fake news include completely fabricated newspaper clips made using online meme generators, fake claims about the origins of the virus, and fabricated claims about WHO approving locally made medication.
The most popular topics for such fake news were health, lockdown, communal, and conspiracy theories.
Another popular type of fake news were real images and videos being shared out of context - accounting for 73 fact checks (23.4%). Common topics of such fake news were yet again communal and lockdown-related, fake news on India's healthcare system were also seen often.
A Comeback Of COVID-19 Fake News?
While COVID-19-related misinformation had taken a backstage since August 2020, and especially during the farmers protest - when the latter dominated the fake news cycle, it is slowly starting to make a comeback.
Since January, we saw a sudden appearance of vaccine-related misinformation, just as inoculation drives were carried out or launched by various countries, including India.
In March, as we cross more than a year since the first nation-wide lockdown was called, lockdown-related misinformation is also making a comeback. Last year's videos of lockdown announcements are starting to be revived with claims of a fresh lockdown this year.
Our past studies have revealed that the fake news industry is highly reactive to real world events. Given how COVID-19 is entering the news cycle, with subsequent waves of infection and announcements of fresh lockdowns and restrictions, a resurgence of COVID-19-related mis/disinformation may just be on its way.
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