After COVID-19 outbreak at Tablighi Jamaat conference, fake news targeting Muslims abounds

04 April 2020
Men wearing protective masks wait for a bus that will take them to a quarantine facility, amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19, in Nizamuddin, Delhi. After news broke of the gathering at Nizamuddin multiple fact-checking organisations noticed a sudden surge in Islamophobic fake news on social media
Credit: Adnan Abidi / REUTERS
Men wearing protective masks wait for a bus that will take them to a quarantine facility, amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19, in Nizamuddin, Delhi. After news broke of the gathering at Nizamuddin multiple fact-checking organisations noticed a sudden surge in Islamophobic fake news on social media
Credit: Adnan Abidi / REUTERS

Since 30 March, when news broke that six attendees at the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic religious gathering in Delhi’s Nizamuddin locality, had died of COVID-19, fact-checking websites have reported a barrage of fake-news targeting Muslims for the pandemic. Many video clips shared on Facebook and WhatsApp purportedly showed Muslims actively working to spread the virus in India. Fact checkers said that despite each of the posts on social media being easy to disprove, the sheer quantity of false-information shared made it tough for them to flag all cases of disinformation. “Ever since the Nizamuddin incident is in the public domain, there is a surge in fake content targeting the Muslim community,” Rakesh Dubbudu, the founder of the fact checking website Factly, said.

From mid-March, Indian social media reported seeing a consistent uptick in verifiably false message about COVID-19. Most messages on platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook surrounding the virus tended to be false-cures, or “expert tips,” on how to avoid the pandemic. Dubbudu said that a majority of fake content related to COVID-19 did not have a religious tone until recently. However, on 30 March, multiple fact-checking organisations noticed a sudden surge in Islamophobic fake news on social media. 

From 8 to 15 March, more than two thousand devotees met in Nizamuddin for a conference organised by the Tablighi Jamaat—a Muslim revivalist organisation. The meeting continued for two days after the Delhi government banned any gathering of more than 200 people.  However, reports show that the 13 March order did not extend to religious organisations. The organisers of the event argued in a press release that several delegates, many from south India and abroad, were stuck in Delhi because of the cancellation of rail services on 21 March.

On 19 March, ten Indonesian nationals who had attended the conference tested positive for COVID-19 in Telangana. Following this, dozens of delegates were tested positive from various parts of the country. Fifteen deaths have since been reported among those who attended the event. On 30 March, the Delhi Police sealed off the organisation’s office and charged the group’s leaders for a variety of offences including criminal conspiracy, and other penal provisions under the Epidemic Diseases Act.

On 30 March, several videos appeared on both WhatsApp and Facebook that claimed to show Muslims engaging in various activities to infect others with the virus. #CHECKIT is a WhatsApp group started by an organisation called Confederation of Voluntary Associations which works towards maintaining communal harmony in south Asia. #CHECKIT have been attempting to spot false forwards on the platform and inform users of the same. Goutham Uyalla, a member of #CHECKIT, told me that they had been working on identifying such content from 2019. Uyalla said, “The organised communal propaganda wing of the right and its controversial leaders have been inactive ever since the COVID-19 outbreak. They are likely to be energised now as Tablighi Jamaat congregation is making headlines.”

Shawn Sebastian is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker.

Keywords: COVID-19 fake news social media Islamophobia
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