Covid-19 related fake news hit many amid uncontrolled social media spreading

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• Many fake news shared via WhatsApp, other personal social media 

• Fake news originated from unknown sources, hit businesses, communities

• Fake news aimed at Sri Lankan expatriates, Chinese, Muslims, Navy

• Traditional media followed social media fake news, breached ethics

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (CIR) – When 56-year-old M. Mulaffar saw a WhatsApp message that originated from the Indian town of Tanjavur on March 8, he was worried about his chicken business in Galle town.

The message was shared among many Sri Lankans, with the intention of  cautioning  their friends in the WhatsApp groups.      

The forwarded WhatsApp message with an image of an unconscious  woman seen by a CIR journalist, said: “All broiler chicken in the coronavirus in Pandhanallur in Thanjavur District carry the COVID-19 trace. Please inform the public and urge them not to eat chicken.”

The initial message was followed by 10 images including one of a woman falling unconscious and being treated after she fainted in an open area, chicken with pinkish blisters on their bodies and heads, a pile of roasted chicken along with biriyani being stacked onto a lorry for disposal, and cooking utensils being checked by some health inspectors in public.

The message was clear and strong: “Do not eat chicken.”

The pictures Mulaffar received in his group (Source: WhatsApp)

“We had experienced how rumours have hit the chicken business in the past. So naturally I was worried about the message,” Mulaffar told CIR from his roadside stall, while counting eggs from a carton.   

After the message, chicken prices in Sri Lanka fell by more than 25% to 480 Sri Lankan rupees per kilo to 340 rupees. Many farm shop owners sold chicken at a loss as they thought the Sri Lankan Government authorities may ban the sales.

The March lockdown to control the spreading of COVID-19 in the island resulted in an sudden drop in the demand and  caused  a significant price reduction, two other chicken businessmen in Colombo and Wattala told CIR.

Meanwhile, Mulaffar says he got the same message from several WhatsApp groups, personal friends and family members. CIR was able to trace one such group in Beruwela

However, it was later discovered that the pictures of chicken had been widely used in India’s Andhra Pradesh to warn the public against consuming chicken as they were purportedly infected with coronavirus (COVID-19).

Indian media fact-checked the story on February 25 and Sri Lankan media did so on March 16. However, the demand for chicken in Sri Lanka slowed down after this rumour amid the March lockdown, resulting in a total breakdown of the supply chain and a  price reduction that hit the meat industry

Sri Lanka’s per capital  consumption of chicken stands at around 9 kg per annum. Though the message on chicken being infected by COVID-19 did not have a strong impact, consumers had already gone into safe mode: they were not into purchasing meat, particularly chicken, as before. A survey by Sparkwinn, a Colombo-based market research firm showed that meat including chicken and seafood was among the top products  consumers avoided during the lockdown.

A careful analysis of those shared images  showed what Mulaffar received in his group were a mixture of images from three different scenarios.

Unconscious woman:

The photo of 27-year-old Safoora Zargar, a pregnant woman from Kashmir had no connection with chicken consumption at all. In fact, the picture was taken  after police attacked a public protest against on February 23 this year. Zargar collapsed while protesting with others who launched a month-long protest against India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. She was later falsely accused of instigating riots in northeast Delhi, the Indian capital, by fabricating evidence, according to Indian media reports.

But her image on ‘coronavirus for broiler chicken’ fake story went viral across India. By the time she was associated with the chicken saga, Zargar was already in the Tihar jail, an Indian prison complex and the largest complex of prisons in South Asia.

Chicken for disposal

In contrast to the cited first incident, the above images had a different context with no link to the coronavirus.

In early February 2020, Indian Food Safety officials raided some hotels in East Godavari in Andhra Pradesh and they examined some hotels and bakeries in the Amalapuram area where they found  meat for sale stored in an unhygienic manner. The rotten chicken and meat stored in hotels were disposed of and the hotel owners were fined.

According to Prashanth Damarla, a debunker at hoaxorfact.com the accompanying images of sick chickens were old and not related to COVID-19 pandemic situation. The image showing a chicken with lost feathers and skin blisters appeared in November 2019 alleging  that broiler chickens may carry a variety of diseases including cancer. More importantly, there was no mention of the  coronavirus made at that time. The second part of the image showed a dead chicken with eyes closed, the result of  aspergillosis, a fungal infectious disease that can sometimes cause eye lesions or chronic lesions in older birds.

The messages warning about coronavirus traces being found in broiler chicken were mostly circulating in the Telangana state of India. Consequently, the veterinary wing of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation issued a media release refuting rumours. It also mentioned the various methods of cooking chicken in India, exposing meat to a temperature of about 100 degrees Celsius which made chicken  suitable for human consumption.

(Media release issued by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. Source: Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation.)

Besides, the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that meat products can be safely consumed if they are cooked thoroughly. 

Like Mulaffar, there were thousands of Sri Lankans who were misled by convincing WhatsApp and Facebook messages during the 52-day lockdown period. Similarly, there were targeted  fabricated stories on social media particularly targeting  the Chinese, migrant returnees from Italy, Korea, the Middle East, ethnic/religious minority Muslims, some Catholics in northern Jaffna, and Sri Lanka Navy, blaming them collectively for allegedly for spreading the deadly coronavirus inside the island.

This meme, widely shared in WhatsApp, claims two Sri Lankan returnees from Italy who tested positive were a curse for the country.

Widely shared on social media, the image shows  a Switzerland-based Christian pastor who conducted a service at the Philadelphia Church in the northern town of Ariyalai and his team. The pastor later tested positive for coronavirus and all attendees  of the mass were required to  self-quarantine.

Another widely shared post in WhatsApp. The meme criticized minority Muslims for allegedly not closing down a mosque.

The meme says: Born in China, grew in the United States, toured Italy and embraced Islam in India – to explain how Muslims were falsely targeted in the two South Asian countries, India and Sri Lanka, for the  alleged spreading of COVID-19.

A meme on how migrant returnees were treated during the COVID-19 lockdown and before. 

The meme says: “China always dispatched original goods to Europe and duplicate products to Sri Lanka. Similarly, may the coronavirus sent to Sri Lanka also be of lower quality.”

Sri Lanka’s conventional media followed the social media trend and made wild claims about certain groups of people such as returning migrant workers of the Muslim minority being responsible for the spreading of the deadly virus. Some of these claims were fact-checked and debunked, but this  proved to be an extremely tedious process for fact checkers as there was a large number of such stories in circulation and they had the capacity only to debunk those as likely to have higher impact.

Fact checkers focused mainly on Facebook and Twitter platforms for their debunking work, but personal messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Viber became the main tools spreading false information and could not be monitored for the shared content as with Facebook or Twitter.

A simple analysis of a WhatsApp group in which Mulaffar’s friend was a member showed how bits of false information came in the form of forwarded message and how these messages had an immediate impact on the recipients, as in the case of chicken prices dropping.

On March 12, Ashan*, a friend of Mulaffar said a  WhatsApp group he administers  received  a forwarded message, seen by CIR, claiming that an anti-coronavirus vaccine was ready and the deadly disease could be cured just in three hours after a person is  vaccinated.

On March 16, he saw another message saying, “coronavirus can be cured by consuming boiled garlic in a tumbler of water and an old Chinese physician has proved its effectiveness.”

The result of fake stories on broiler chicken and garlic were worlds apart. “The end result was the local garlic prices going up, after these messages being shared. Likewise, we saw the price of lime, turmeric and ginger also increased as a result of such messages. But there was no evidence to suggest they were a cure for COVID-19,” Ashan said.

Ashan said the price of lime saw a tenfold increase, reaching up to 1,000 Sri Lankan rupees while the price of ginger jumped by about four times.

In addition, there were panic-spreading messages from tiem to time on the possibility of curfew being imposed and whenever  people received such messages, they seem to end up inside super markets, creating an artificial  shortage of consumer goods and creating long queues outside shops, , another participant of the group said.

However, there were also messages focused on awareness creation and tips to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. There were discussions on curfew violations and how people should conduct themselves and about symptoms of the deadly disease. At the same time, there was a flood of unverified messages being shared, often compelling group members to react, some members said.

From time to time, some members raised questions about the credibility of messages shared within these group, but the circulation of unverified information from unverified sources could hardly be contained.

In another incident, there was a video recording on how airport officials were checking the returning migrant workers from Italy and the Middle East, while allowing Chinese arrivals freely enter the country without subjecting them to the mandatory PCR test. One of those posts forwarded said some of the Sri Lankans residing in Italy had returned to the island via France, claiming: “Though we thought of them as “Rata Viruvo” (overseas heroes), they appear to be worse than Saharan (the main suspect in the April 2019 Easter bombings), destroying the country.” 

“These kinds of recordings raised concerns about associating with Chinese and Italian nationals. Later, the same approach and attitude was seen about various other groups of people, victims of fake news,” Ashan said.

In the meantime, mainstream media appeared to be pouring fuel to the fire in breach of media ethics, portraying persons suspected of carrying the virus as confirmed COVID-19 patients. A former minister even termed hard working Sri Lankan migrant workers in Middle East as “COVID bombs.”

On April 8, police arrested nine persons, including a woman on charges of spreading fake information relating to COVID- 19 via social media. Police stated that a 43-year-old man was arrested from Polgahawela on charges of causing panic among the public by falsely claiming that there were infected persons admitted to the hospital there.

However, fake news via social media were hardly contained during the two months of lockdown.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found that false news stories are 70 percent likely to be retweeted over true stories. It also takes true stories about six times longer to reach 1,500 people as opposed to false stories to reach the same number of people within a specific period of time. When it comes to Twitter’s “cascades,” or unbroken retweet chains, falsehoods reach a cascade depth of 10 –and about 20 times faster than facts. Likewise, falsehoods are retweeted by unique users more broadly than true statements at every depth of a cascade.

“It is not easy to carry out fact-checks very quickly because false information often comes as part of a big package which includes a mix of  facts and fiction,” said Senel Wanniarachchi,  co-founder of Hashtag Generation, which has been promoting digital citizenship in Sri Lanka, during  a June discussion on Zoom.

 

Currency notes are being dried after washed, which people in social media said to get rid of the deadly virus (Source: WhatsApp)

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