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

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
04 April, 2020

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.”

On 1 April, one of the members of #CHECKIT found a video on WhatsApp showing a group of men in white robes and skull caps licking the leftovers from plates and spoons meticulously. An embedded message read, “Be careful everyone…. These are some people who are preparing to spread Corona Virus…Please be far from people…Please.” On the same day, an article on Factly pointed out that the practice of licking cutlery after every meal is a tradition among the Bohra community of Muslims. The article states, “Entire Bohra family eats in a single plate ‘Thaal’ and they have a ‘no-wastage’ policy. So they do not leave a single grain of rice on their plate when it is taken away.” The website identified that the video preceded the COVID-19 outbreak by at least two years. The portal also shared the screenshot of a Facebook post with the same video, which claimed that Muslims were, “applying and putting saliva on spoons, plates, and utensils and also they are with the intention of spreading coronavirus disease. Nobody knows what is happening to the nation.” The user who posted the video claimed that police caught 11 Indonesian Muslim “mullahs” from a mosque in Salem, Tamil Nadu for spreading the virus. When Factly archived the post on 1 April it had over 3,000 views and 176 shares.

In another video shared in a WhatsApp group called “Beyond Organic” on 20 March, an employee at a restaurant wearing a skull cap is seen blowing into a plastic carry bag before packing food. The accompanying text read, “Muslims are spitting in food which we give order to purchase to eat. Please. Avoid purchase food from Muslim shops.” GR Sai, one of the members of the group, said that it was evident that the man in the video was trying to blow open the bag. Though this might be unhygienic, many people do so irrespective of their religion. The fact checking website Alt News also found that the video had been uploaded onto YouTube in April 2019 and had nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dubbudu said he expects more old video clips of Muslim communities and their practices to be shared in the coming days, wrongly linking them to the COVID-19 outbreak. So far, he had come across at least four such videos. One video he found on Facebook showed a group of Muslims sitting in a mosque, rotating their head and breathing out ritualistically. The video was accompanied by the caption, “No words, seems they are on mission.” Many comments below the video also accused the Muslim community of actively attempting to spread the pandemic. “Ninja technique of spreading corona for longer distance just like the way they throw grenades and stones for longer distance,” wrote one user. “Bioweapon by human, sneeze…” wrote another. One user pointed out that the video depicted a common Sufi tradition. The user also shared the video of a song from Turkey that showed similar ritualistic breathing. Factly’s team is currently working on identifying the origin of the initial video using their verification tools. Dubbudu thinks that a Sufi practice is being circulated in a completely different context. “Those who create it have an agenda and those who share it often do it blindly while their existing prejudices will influence them,” he said. “There are people out there ready to milk the situation.” Alt News also identified the video as not being from Nizamuddin and also being shared by users in Pakistan accusing the Sufi sect of madness.

On 30 March Republic TV aired a video with a ten-minute audio recording which they claimed belonged to a Muslim cleric from the Tablighi Jamaat congregation. The clip was widely shared with an incorrect translation in Telugu attached which read, “Defeat lockdown and come out. If we spread this disease to 70,000 people, India will be destroyed. It will come into our control.”

Dubbudu told me that he had found a video on 30 March on Facebook with a ten-minute audio recording which they claimed belonged to a Muslim cleric from the Tablighi Jamaat congregation. The video was earlier aired by Republic TV. The clip was widely shared with an incorrect translation in Telugu attached which read, “Defeat lockdown and come out. If we spread this disease to 70,000 people, India will be destroyed. It will come into our control.” The statement was being attributed to the Tablighi Jamaat chief. Facebook later flagged the video as fake with the help of independent fact checkers. “Since no one likely hears the ten-minute long speech, everyone believed the accompanying text and it went viral,” Dubbudu said. Mazhar Hussain, the founder of COVA, found another old video on WhatsApp shows Muslims cleaning themselves beside a water tank before namaz in large numbers. A user named Nadeem argued that the video is most likely from 2018 at the Raiwind Ijtema—a religious gathering held in Pakistan. He shared a screenshot of a local TV channel called Message TV to prove his claim. These videos are clear attempts to spread misinformation that Muslims are defying the lockdown.

Such misinformation has been spread not only by social-media users, but also in broadcasts by some television channels. The Kannada channel Public TV, in a segment aired on 14 March, wrongly claimed that four Muslim youths from Bhatkal in Karnataka refused medical screening due to “religious reasons” on returning from Dubai. Alt News cross-checked the claim with the district authorities and found out that no such incident occurred. The channel had based their broadcast entirely on a one local’s statement. In its report on the Public TV’s broadcast, Alt News noted that the “religious” angle was the contribution of the anchor. 

“The reason why misinformation is accepted very easily is because there is so much polarisation in society,” Pratik Sinha, the founder of Alt News, said. Sinha agreed that misinformation surrounding COVID-19 did not have a religious tone before the Nizamuddin event was covered by mainstream media. He said when an opportunity is given to polarise people, it is easily used by those who want to. Sinha said that being able to identify fake content was often tied to how you would be affected by it. “Those who are targeted would be more critical,’’ he said, adding that the beneficiaries of misinformation would often encourage it or remain passive letting the damage of it be done. 

There has also been a clear growth in video content that might not be fake but attempts to give a communal angle to the lockdown. On 24 March, Hussain found a point-of-view video shot by a man on a bike during the lockdown in Hyderabad, which was shared on WhatsApp. The video shows a large group of Muslims praying in two different mosques while the roads are deserted due to the lockdown. In the running commentary on the video, the person who shot it criticises Telangana’s chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao for “going soft on Muslims even when section 144 is imposed.” The person added that had it been Hindus praying in temples, the government would have taken strict action against them. 

On 28 March, Tathagata Roy, the governor of Meghalaya, retweeted images of a crowded street with a caption reading, “see lockdown in Kolkata’s Metiabruz today.” Along with the image he tweeted “Government relief should be given to only those people who abide by the rules of lockdown. Those who don’t, shouldn’t get benefits, relief and (medical) treatment from the government.” Alt News later proved that the images were from Rawalpindi in Pakistan and from a street in Kolkata clicked in June 2019. The Alt News report noted that the images were being used to falsely claim that people, particularly Muslims, were flouting the lockdown. Roy later took down his tweet.

The islamophobic hysteria created by such false videos is also evident in twitter hastags such as #CoronaJihad, which trended on 1 April. Uyalla told me that they were struggling to cope with the sheer quantity of fake content posted about Muslims and COVID-19, saying that a lot more kept being posted in informal groups. He said that fake content targeting Muslims was spreading faster than the virus itself.