Mumbai: Misinformation and disinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic rose with the rise in the number of detected SARS-CoV-2 cases, according to an analysis of 178 fact-checks published by BOOM, a fact-checking initiative, between January 25, 2020 and May 2, 2020.

Of these, nearly one in five were fact-checks on communal rumours, most of which were false allegations against Muslims, of purposefully spreading the virus. Video accounted for more than a third of false or misleading claims that BOOM had fact-checked during this period. Nearly two in five claims were on Facebook.

Misinformation rose in March 2020, when cases began rising in India

BOOM published its first COVID-19 fact-check on January 25, 2020. The following month, major events such as the Delhi elections, US President Donald Trump's visit to India and the Delhi riots dominated the fake news cycle.

As more COVID-19 cases were detected in March 2020, related misinformation also rose, BOOM found. In April 2020, BOOM published nearly three fact-checks related to COVID-19 every day, on average.

Most fact-checked topics: Communal rumours, misinformation on lockdowns

Communal rumours accounted for 34 of the 178 fact-checks that BOOM published during this period. These messages first appeared in April 2020, after several members of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary group, tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus following a congregation in Delhi in March 2020.

Misinformation about lockdowns accounted for the second highest number (21) of claims that BOOM busted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared a 21-day countrywide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on March 24, 2020. This was extended twice, on April 13, 2020, until May 4, 2020, and on May 1, 2020, until May 17, 2020, with some relaxations.

Misinformation on lockdowns and related regulations also spiked in April 2020, the analysis showed.

In January and February 2020, most misinformation was centred around China, where the virus originated, and Italy, among the worst-affected countries. Conspiracy theories about the virus being a bioweapon also started surfacing in February 2020.

April 2020 also saw false claims about the economy. That month, India’s unemployment rate rose to 26.1%, with 100-120 million Indian losing their jobs, Mahesh Vyas, chief executive officer and managing director of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, said in this interview. India’s real gross domestic product growth in 2020 will be 1.9%, according to an estimate by the International Monetary Fund.

Fake guidelines did the rounds in March, Fake videos spiked in April 2020

Videos, as we said, accounted for more than a third of claims busted during this period. April 2020 saw a spike, with a surge in videos targeting Muslim vendors with allegations of spitting on food items to spread the virus, the analysis showed.

Text messages--related to false cures, treatments or quotes from celebrities--and misrepresented or doctored images, accounted for about 30% each. Text messages with fake claims spiked in March 2020, when false notifications and guidelines became viral.

Further, four were audio clips and five were news reports by mainstream media organisations, which made false claims against a particular community.

Facebook most commonly used for misinformation, many claims on multiple platforms

Nearly two in five false or misleading claims related to COVID-19 were from Facebook, while more than a third surfaced on multiple social media platforms, the analysis showed.

Chowdhury is a fact-checker and reporter at BOOM.

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