The entire global community is presently battling hard against the deadly coronavirus. And one of the biggest challenges that we face amid the pandemic is the spread of fake news/misinformation that may have disastrous consequences for the wellbeing of the society and can bring about what is being called an ‘infodemic’.
Unreasonable, unreliable and false information is posing a big threat in the fight against the pandemic. The spurt of fake news is a worrisome development as it does more harm than good to the public.Fake news has devastating risks and can expose the vulnerabilities of many in this fragile and conflict-affected contexts. With the changing nature of the society in which social, political, economic and technological contexts are altering, the impact of fake news is also changing its form.
India has more than 560 million internet users which is the second largest online market after China (Statista, March 31, 2020). Consumers have access to variety of information including ones that lack validity and may not be from a trusted source.
Unverified information is readily available, circulated and endorsed by those who believe in it. Any unknown, uncertain and high fear phenomenon becomes a breeding ground for fabrications to flourish and grow (UN News, 2020). There is a huge risk when a single false phenomenon gains traction and has a lot of ‘novelty’ associated with its origin. Since nothing concrete is known about it, there is scope for conjecturing and guessing which lead to creating scare, hatred, prejudices, and biases in the minds of people who are viewing it. The motivation behind spreading the fake news could be many. Misleading information is travelling as fast as the virus itself. Conspiracy theories, unestablished cure tips, racist rhetoric are infecting the world more that the virus itself. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp are found to be the breeding grounds of such fake news.
Among many others, the spread of fake news about the spread of COVID-19 took a communal turn in India after the Tablighi Jamaat event in the Nizamuddin area of Delhi came under limelight. Several videos depicting muslims deliberately contributing to the increase in the spread of COVID-19 began doing the rounds. This was a deliberate hate campaign with negative intentions to malign the image of a particular community. Several videos of members of the muslim community offering prayers in large gatherings and violating the norms of lockdown, intentionally sneezing, congregating at the mosque in Nizamuddin to muslims spitting on the faces of medical workers were doing rounds on different social media platforms.
One of the most bizarre and disgusting hoaxes of all of them was a video of a fruit vendor from the muslim community contaminating fruits with his saliva. The consumers of the video connected ‘contamination of fruits with saliva’ with the intentions of the muslim community to deliberately increase the spread of COVID infections in the country.
This led to spurt of messages maligning the community of their ‘evil intentions’ to spread the infections in country. The ‘evil intentions’ were allegedly emanating to protest against the recent compulsion of the Central Government to create a National Register of Citizens (NRCs) which allegedly has adverse impacts on the muslim’ community. The consequences of such cooked up stories and conspiracy theories evoked stereotypes leading to prejudices that have serious manifestations in the form of discrimination against the fruits and vegetable vendors from the muslim community around the country. Several muslim fruit vendors reported experiencing bullying by the buyers, boycott, assault etc.
This study uses narratology, a method for qualitative research, to deep-dive into lived realities of fruit and vegetable vendors who faced discrimination triggered by the fake news during the lockdown. The sample includes 20 fruits and vegetable vendors in the city limits of Patna (Bihar) who were granted permission to sell fruits and vegetables during the lockdown. In-depth interviews were conducted to understand the discrimination faced by them in the aftermath of extensive proliferation of fake news and anti-muslim propaganda.The section below puts forward some select quotes from these interviews.
- A fruit vendor, Vishal Kumar (50 years) says, “Log shak karte hai ki musalmaan to nahi. Aadhar card dikahne bolte hain” (People suspect whether I am a muslim. They ask me to show my Aadhar Card)
- A vegetable vendor, Pankaj Pathak (45 years) says, “Pehle kabhi grahak naam aur jaat nahi poochte the. Ab ye sab pooch kar Saabs lete hain”(Never before did anyone ask my name or my religion. Now they enquire about these things at the time of buying vegetables)
- A vegetable vendor, Mahmood Alam (40 years) says, “Main gale mein taabeez pehenta hoon. Mere taabeez ko dekh kar mere purane grahakon ko samajh aa gayaa ki main musalmaan hoon. Ab mujhse koi sabzi nahi khareed raha hai. Bhed-bhaav karte hain log”(I wear a talisman around my neck. My old customers spotted the talisman and they have understood that I am a muslim. They have stopped purchasing vegetables from me.
- A fruit vendor, Junaid Ali (36 years) says, “Kuch logon ke karan hamein bhugatna pad raha hai. Hamari kya galti hai. Bohot dukh hota hai. Corona jaan le na le, gareebi jaroor maar dalegi.”(We are suffering because of few of them. What is our mistake? I am very saddened by this. We may not be killed by Corona but poverty will surely kill us.
- A vegetable vendor, Mukesh (27 years) says, “Musalmaan sabzi aur phal waalon se logon ne samaan lena band kar diya hai jab se ek video viral hua hai. Iss se hamari kamai to badh gayi hai. Lekin bhed bhaav karna achha nahi hai.”(People have stopped buying vegetables and fruits from muslim vendors since the time a video went viral. Because of thus this our income has increased. But discrimination is not good.’
- A vegetable vendor, Mukhtar (60 years) says, “Main us gali mein lagbhag 10 saal se roz sabji bechne aata tha. Lekin mujhe wahan ke logon ne aane se mana kar diya. Ab main iss gali mein sabji bech raha hoon. Jyaada chalna padta hai par gujara to karna hai.”(I was used to selling vegetables on that road since the last 10 years. But people of that locality have asked me not to enter the road. I have therefore, started coming to this lane. I have to cover long distance but I have to survive.)
- A fruit vendor, Lalit (45 years) says, “Kuch logon ne mere jaat ke bare mein afwah uda di ki hum musalmaan hai. Ek din jab hum phal dene gaye to lathi dikhake humko maarne ka dhamki diya. Hum bole hum musalmaan nahi, hindu hain nahi to uss din maar hi data humko.”(Some vegetable vendors spread rumours that I am a muslim. When I went to sell fruits one day, people showed me sticks and threatened to beat me. I had to tell them I am not a muslim but a Hindu else they would have killed me that day.)
- A fruit vendor, Afzal (30 years) says, “Hum sab par logon ko shak ho gaya hai. Koi phal nahi khareed raha. Bhed bhav ho raha hai. Mera 10 sadsya ka parivaar hai, main akela kamaane wala hoon. Kaise jiyenge? Kaise kamaaenge?”(We all are being mistrusted. We are being discriminated against. I have a family of 10 members to support and I am the only earning member. How will we live? How will we earn?
- A fruit vendor, Manish Yadav (35 years) says, “Hum to gerua vastra pahanne lage hain taki log door se dekh ke hi samajh jaae ki hum Hindu hai”(I have started wearing saffron attire so that people identify me as Hindu from far off.)
- A vegetable vendor, Khannum (45 years) says, “Iss mohalla ka log mere pure sabzi ka thela ulat diya ek din. Kaha kitno ko maroge terrorist kahin ke. Hindustan se nikal jaao. Bohot kasht hua sun kar.”(A mob of this colony toppled my vegetable cart one day. They named me a terrorist and alleged that I would kill others. They also asked me to leave the country. This makes me miserable.)
It can be observed that most of the vendors faced hardships as a fall-out of the spreading of false news. For some of them the nature of hardships is less severe for others it is very severe. Some of them have faced acute forms of social boycott and discrimination due to unauthenticated news. Some are forced to change their routes, attract new customers by providing vegetables at throw away prices.Such discrimination was never faced by fruits/vegetable vendors before. This is for the first time that most of them are being forced to give proof of their identity. Earlier the focus was on objects (viz. fruits/vegetables) that were to be purchased. Now there is a mediating role of ‘religion’ of people that is impacting the transactions between the buyers and sellers. This shows the impact that a fake news like this can have on the relationships with people around them. It disturbs the social milieu in multiple ways.Most of them are forced to change ways in which they use to interact with their customers such as change their physical appearances, carrying their proofs of identity to instil confidence among their customers.
Many uncertainties and fears loom in the minds of the vendor about their lives, survival and livelihoods.
The narratives above help us in arriving at a common thread connecting issues faced by vendors due to the circulation of unreliable, undependable hoaxes.
It is ironic that with internet penetration increasing in the country, the speed with which any false news spreads is unprecedented. In times of crisis, where there are uncertainties more that certainty, people are more vulnerable to accept whatever is being told to them and that they find convincing. However, those who discriminate must acknowledge that they are far more vulnerable than those who are being discriminated against. We, as individuals, should learn to acknowledge our weaknesses first before discriminating against others. This act of communalising an issue in the times of the pandemic is both disturbing as well as dangerous. The lived experiences of people and their outcry is simply deplorable! It will surely remain a scar that will take long to heal.
Aditi Thakur is Assistant Professor, Development Management Institute, Patna.