Fighting With Infodemic Is The Need Of An Hour: Covid-19 Pandemic

At the very outset, TikTok reportedly censors materials globally which is deemed politically sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party, including content related to the recent Hong Kong protests, as well as references to Tiananmen Square, Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, and the treatment of Uighurs. I suggest the reading of https://www.lawfareblog.com/unpacking-tiktok-mobile-apps-and-national-security-risks to know more on how the USA is dealing with the security issues being created by TIK-TOK.

The platform however,reportedly failed to censor more than 30,000 clips which were circulated somewhere in March which suggests a set pattern of targeted disinformation campaign aimed at the Indian Muslim community.

I, Vibhor Gupta, practicing Advocate and Senior Associate at Khurana and Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorneys had filed a Petition before the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Public Interest under Article 32. The said case was filed vide diary No. 10903-2020 on 13.04.2020.  The case was filed requesting the Hon’ble Court to issue order or direction, in the nature of Mandamus, or any direction otherwise as deemed fit imposing a temporary ban on the mobile application/social media portal such as TIK-TOK and others those are capable of being misused till the Coronavirus / Covid-19 disease subsides in India. However, the Hon’ble Supreme Court dismissed the said petition 27.04.2020. Hence I have voiced my petition in this article and shall soon be addressing an open letter to the Prime Minister’s Office in due course.

Pertinently, TIK-TOK has allowed to promote dangerous individuals and organizations, both in India and abroad, to use the platform to promote and spread hate, crime, or other types of behaviour that is detrimental not only to the elimination of Covid-19 but it has allowed messages to spread that are against or opposite of the Government advisories. These messages are disturbing and aimed at spreading hatred in the community. That there is a credible and potential threat to public safety.

One may argue, why not ban the accounts of such persons, why affect the other 500 million user base who uses this application for making funny videos. To that the answer is as follows:

a. The question is not about banning such accounts that pose a potential threat to peace of the country after circulation of the videos; but the question is preventing the spreading/circulation of such videos; as simply banning the accounts after videos being circulated in public domain would not resolve the issues; particularly at such a crucial time of pandemic when the organs of the states are already overburdened.

b. A temporary ban will be for the safety and interest of 500 Million Active users of Tik – Tok in India along with a population of 130 crore (approx.) population which has access to such misinformed videos that is causing harm to the public at large. The videos uploaded on TIK-TOK and circulated among public are adversely promoting cultural, spiritual and theological dimensions, instigating a particular community (Muslim)  toviolate or not follow the Rules and Regulations/Advisories for Health and Safety, set out by the Government of India amidst the havoc of Covid-19.

c. The advisories as to social distancing appealed by the Prime Minister has been projected through these adult videos as being against the Muslims and led to several Muslim community members interpreting the same as contradictory to what is entailed in the Quran. Thus, as a large number of the Muslim community feels that the said message meddles with their beliefs of Islam.Such misrepresentations have led or may lead to a surge of Covid-19 positive cases in a particular community.

d. Most videos that being circulated are misinformation meant to incite fear, hate, or prejudice among communities that may have devastating effect. The said videos are contrary to one’s individual health and the misinformation being spread by such users may cause harm to larger public health, as most of the information is misleading to the medical treatments being suggested by the Indian Government / World Health Organisation.

e. On 03.04.2020 An article was published in India Today which headlined “Surge in TikTok videos aimed at misleading Indian Muslims over coronavirus precautions” The article further reads, “an investigation by a Delhi-based digital lab, Voyager Infosec, into more than 30,000 clips circulated this week suggests a set pattern of targeted disinformation campaign aimed at the Indian Muslim community.” The said article describes how the TikTok conversations are laced with religious overtones. Some examples of the wordings used are as follows:”CORONAVIRUS IS ALLAH’S NRC”.In one such video, a young boy describes the pandemic as “Allah’s NRC”.” This coronavirus is nothing. It’s Allah’s NRC. It’s Allah’s wish who stays and who is summoned up,” he argues. The 13-second video ends with fellow boys throwing their masks into the air, with a song, “Allah Se Dar — Fear Allah” playing in the background. Another 17-second clip runs texts in Hindi that suggest coronavirus would not strike Muslims. One line invokes the Holy Quran while claiming hand-shaking and hugging cure disease.

f. A Delhi based digital media Lab investigation by the name Voyager Infosec investigation revealed that “Some of the videos have foreign origin but they have been edited with Hindi texts and Urdu voiceover to target Indian audiences, the probe report recommends a deeper investigation into the possible role of foreign actors behind this disinformation campaign.”

g. Lastly, amidst the chaos of novel coronavirus it can be observed that various departments of the Government are already overburdened with the job of making and shifting migratory workers to relief camps, the Police authorities are also exhausted in compliance of the lockdown while few of them have already succumbed to death due to Covid-19, the District Collectors are busy in providing tests and providing basic amenities to the poor like water, food, medical aid to novel coronavirus infected patient. So it would be morally unfair to burden them with the task of investigating each of these 30,000 videos (sofar) of assessing, filtering these videos and then try to curtail the spread of Fake News/ disinformed campaigns by pursuing and arresting each misinformed citizen of India. Moreover, at this crucial point of time, what is required is the preventive measures to prevent such videos being circulated; rather than corrective measures of filtering them after circulation and banning the accounts. There is no mechanism in place wherein such circulations can be checked and prevented beforehand prior to circulations and during this pandemic

No matter how important Tik-Tok or as a matter of fact even the internet is, it cannot be elevated to the status and protection of a human rightwhich is currently under a massive threat due to a worldwide pandemic. We need to understand that the nation is facing such health related adversity, that an abrasive, misguided statement with imminent threat may be restricted, as the same is impinging upon the sovereignty and integrity of India.Tik-Tok has failed in filtering and performing its duties morally once again. Thus the question of freedom of speech and expression is not what is in play rather than the fact and as stated by Dr TedrosAdhanomGhebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organisation (WHO) that “We are not just fighting an epidemic; we are fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous. ” [AD3] 

Reportedly[1], Tik-Tok released a statement saying that it is in the process of banning thousands of accounts and removing questionable videos in equal measure to ensure that incorrect advise about novel coronavirus prevention is not passed down to its users. The statement comes a day after India Today published a report citing an investigation by Delhi-based digital lab Voyager Infosec. TikTok in its official statement said, “We are removing such content from our platform and have heightened our moderation efforts.” The statement went even further to say, “Invalidated or misleading content poses an acute concern.”

However, the concern still according to me remains unaddressed as still I can see videos surfing on Tik-Tok which are against the spirit of the government Advisories and further possibility of surge in the same cannot be denied. Moreover, the further concern is that there are certain accounts from which these Vidoes are uploaded that do not belong to Indian Citizen but foreign citizens; which is again a serious concern for Indian enforcement agencies.

Thus, I as a responsible citizen of India request that appropriate order/notification be passed by Government of India that such videos to be allowed by such portals only after screening of the same and validating the content and if the same is practically impossible, the Government of India should impose temporary ban on such portals till this crucial time of pandemic subsides.

Last but not least, I also request People of India that not to pay heed to such misinformed videos; rather immediately report such videos immediately to appropriate authority for removal of the same from the said portals.

Stay Lockdown- Stay Safe. Issued in Public Interest!

Author: Vibhor Gupta, Senior Associate, at Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorneys.  In case of any queries please contact/write back to us at vibhor@khuranaandkhurana.com.

References:

[1]https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/removing-videos-accounts-spreading-misinformation-tiktok-1663299-2020-04-04

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