From currency to salt; very little escaped the reach of fake or fabricated news in India in 2016, writes Alison Saldanha
Rumours spread from WhatsApp and other social media into the mainstream media. Institutions such as Unesco and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had to step in and tell us what was true.
Even Facebook and Google, two of the worlds biggest internet companies, sat up and took notice.
Such news can have widespread reach: India is one of the biggest markets for several social media and communication companies – it has 160 million of WhatsApp’s one billion-plus monthly active users, 148 million Facebook users, and over 22 million Twitter accounts.
The potency of fabricated news came into focus after the 2016 US presidential elections. In the run-up to the ballot, fake news on the elections drew more engagement on Facebook than top-performing stories from major news outlets such as The New York Times, CNN, NBC News, or The Wall Street Journal, this BuzzFeed News analysis found.
Other countries witnessed the rise of fake news too, according to this Guardian report, rendering it a global phenomenon in 2016. Here are some of the most popular Indian fake news stories of 2016:
- UNESCO declares Narendra Modi best Prime Minister
UNESCO has been one of the primary alleged sources of fake news in India. In June 2016, fake news broke out on WhatsApp groups, and other social media, that the UN cultural agency had awarded Prime Minister Narendra Modi the title of best prime minister in the world.
That rumour is still circulating on social media.
- UNESCO declares “Jana Gana Mana” best national anthem
Another favourite Indian rumour involving UNESCO is the claim that India’s national anthem — “Jana Gana Mana” — has been declared the “Best National Anthem In The World”.
The fake news started in 2008 through email and then caught the UN agency’s attention. “We are aware of several blogs in India reporting this story, but can assure you that UNESCO has made no such announcement concerning the anthem of India or any country,” an official told India Today in 2008.
When India Today wrote to the UNESCO asking for details and clarifications regarding this ‘announcement’, Sue Williams (Chief, Editorial, Press Relations and Unesco Courier, Bureau of Public Information, Unesco) wrote back that no such award has been announced.
She wrote that the UNESCO was aware of this mail, but it was not true.
“We are aware of several blogs in India reporting this story, but can assure you that Unesco has made no such announcement concerning the anthem of India or any country,” she wrote.
But circulation of the rumour again peaked around India’s Independence Day in 2016.
- UNESCO declares new Rs 2,000 note best currency in the world
Another fake UNESCO certificate for India touched upon the notebandi crisis, as messages claimed the organisation had certified the new Rs 2,000 note as the “best currency in the world”.
The message, shared widely on WhatsApp, claimed “Dr Saurabh Mukherjee, head of cultural awareness department of UNESCO announced this to media”.
The rumours caught the eye of the BBC, which reported that “thousands” of Indian WhatsApp users had “forwarded the message along with joyful emojis”.
- New notes have a GPS chip to detect black money
Another notebandi rumour proliferated when PM Modi announced the withdrawal of old Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes on November 8, 2016. In less than an hour, rumours circulating on WhatsApp of a nano geo-positioning system (GPS) tracking device embedded in the new Rs 2,000 notes gained traction.
This chip, the messages said, would alert authorities if black money was hoarded. The nano-GPS chip does not need any power source, the forward said, according to a Firstpost report.
“It only acts as a signal reflector. When a satellite sends a signal requesting location the NGC reflects back the signal from the location, giving precise location coordinates, and the serial number of the currency back to the satellite, this way every chip-embedded currency can be easily tracked & located even if it is kept 120 meters below ground level. The NGC can’t be tampered with or removed without damaging the currency note.”
Mobile currency-scanner apps emerged claiming the app can scan new notes and have these authenticated by RBI, according to a Firstpost report.
The RBI has clarified the new notes contain security features such as latent images, coloured strip security threads, watermarks etc, but they do not have a chip installed, according to a The Hindu report.
- New notes have radioactive ink
Notebandi provided more fodder for fake news.
Earlier this month, rumours began circulating that the RBI was using radioactive ink to print new Rs 2,000 and Rs 500 notes. The new notes include a “radioactive isotope of phosphorous (P32), which has 15 protons and 17 neutrons”.
The fake news claimed the income-tax department was using the isotope to trace large quantities of cash held at a particular spot. The trace amounts of radioactive isotope employed in this exercise were not harmful to humans, according to WhatsApp messages, as FirstPost reported.
- WhatsApp profile pictures can be used by ISIS for terror activities
A WhatsApp forward, supposedly sent by the Delhi police commissioner, requested “moms” and “sisters” to delete their WhatsApp profile pictures for security purposes.
These pictures were supposedly vulnerable to misuse by the terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose hackers had access to citizens’ details and could easily steal their virtual identity, according to the forwarded message. The message further claimed that WhatsApp’s CEO had requested users do this for 20-25 days, while their team worked on enhancing the messaging application’s security features.
The message was signed off by an A.K. Mittal, who claimed to be Delhi’s police commissioner — blatantly wrong because the incumbent is A.K. Varma.
- RBI declares the Rs 10 coin invalid
Months before notebandi was announced, the message that the RBI had declared the Rs 10 coin invalid spread through WhatsApp, particularly to areas in Agra, Delhi and Meerut.
This confusion led shopkeepers, kiosk-owners, auto-rickshaw drivers and vendors to refuse the coins, according to a Hindustan Times report from September 2016.
The RBI stepped in and clarified that the coins were indeed legal tender and those refusing to accept the currency could face legal action.
- Jayalalithaa’s ‘secret daughter’ and heir lives in the US
Soon after the death of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, fake news and photos of a secret daughter went viral on WhatsApp and social media. The message alleged that the woman in the photograph was Jayalalithaa’s daughter, who lived somewhere in the US in anonymity.
As it turns out, the woman in the photograph was not connected to Jayalalithaa and lived in Australia, according to popular singer and TV show host Chinmayi Sripada, who took to Facebook to dispel the rumours.
- Salt shortage in India
WhatsApp messages of a salt shortage (despite a 7,517 km coastline) in November 2016 triggered panic buying at markets past midnight, and caused a four-fold price-rise in some parts of the country.
Western Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra and Hyderabad were particularly affected by this bit of fake news, said news reports. The subsequent chaos to stock up on the essential commodity led to the death of a woman in Kanpur, while police baton-charged crowds and stopped mobs from looting grocery shops, according to an India Today report.
The government issued a clarification denying any shortage of the commodity. Speaking at an event in Goa, PM Modi claimed the fake news was being circulated by “vested interests hurt by demonetisation”, according to an IANS report.
- “Nehru Govt has stood like a Banyan Tree”: Mark Tully
Fake news claiming former BBC India bureau chief Mark Tully called for support to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, while describing India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s government as standing “like a banyan tree, overshadowing the people and the institutions of India”, went viral on social media earlier this month.
“Nothing grows under the banyan tree,” the message added. Tully rebutted the claims of the post in a Hindustan Times column.
(Alison Saldanha is an assistant editor with IndiaSpend.org. Views expressed are those of IndiaSpend)