The government of India has asked social media giant Facebook and ByteDance’s popular TikTok app to remove users spreading misinformation about COVID-19 following concern about videos intended to mislead Muslims.
The move follows a report by Delhi-based digital analytics firm Voyager Infosec which identified a pattern of targeted disinformation in many social media videos that appeared to be aimed at Muslims, with some using religious beliefs to justifying defiance of health advisories over the virus.
In one video reviewed by the news agency Reuters on Tuesday, a TikTok user says he is not scared of the coronavirus because, as a Muslim, he is a follower of the Prophet Mohammed and fears only Allah.
In another, a young man throws away a face mask – of the kind being commonly used during the coronavirus outbreak – to put on a Muslim skull cap, and makes a gesture of praying.
Concerns about such content forced India’s IT ministry to write to TikTok and Facebook on April 5, the government source said. The letter, seen by Reuters on Tuesday, asks companies to remove users who are spreading misinformation and “preserve” their details for sharing with law enforcement when requested.
“You need to ensure that such rogue messages do not go viral,” said the IT ministry’s letter.
“(Such messages) have the potential for creating panic … this effectively weakens the all-out effort being made by the Indian government for containing the coronavirus,” the letter added.
In a statement, TikTok said it was “actively working with the government to support” their efforts to fight misinformation, while proactively working towards elevating credible information related to COVID-19 on its platform.
Facebook told Reuters it was taking “aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading on our platforms”. It said it will remove misinformation about COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, that could contribute to imminent physical harm.
The coronavirus crisis has been accompanied by what the World Health Organisation has called an “infodemic” of misinformation, speculation and rumour. Globally, platforms such as Facebook have responded by barring users from posting misleading information about the COVID-19 pandemic, including denials of expert guidance and encouragement of fake treatments.
India has so far reported 4,421 coronavirus cases and some 115 deaths. It is currently in a period of nationwide lockdown aimed at reducing the spread of the virus. During the lockdown, the government there has been posting on Twitter cautioning people against misinformation and debunking fake news.
India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh also raised concerns about “fake news” social media posts on Tuesday, saying its cyber cell was reviewing at least one Facebook and six TikTok videos. It gave no further details.
“We will definitely take action … We are also sending details to the Indian government from our end,” a senior state official, Avanish Kumar Awasthi, told reporters.
Via our content partners at Reuters. Reporting by Aditya Kalra. Edited by Timothy Heritage.