Fake News in Times of COVID-19: Role of Mainstream Media

By Krishna Sharma, B.A. L.L.B. from Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. 

Krishna is currently serving as Advocacy Consultant at Justice Ventures International


Fake news is a global menace and India is no exception to it. In this age of social media and the growing internet base in India, the problem of fake news is getting more intensified. Fake news or misinformation is often deemed as innocuous but we have instances from both the past and the present to show that it has also led to the human cost[i] and often lead to fatal consequences.

In 2014, the World Economic Forum published a report[ii] listing fake news or misinformation online among the top 10 growing challenges before the World. Recently, Information and Broadcasting Minister of India Prakash Javadekar commented, ‘fake news is more dangerous than paid news’. ‘Fake News has potent power of the disturbing the peace in the society’ he added and called for self-regulation to curb the menace.[iii]                                                                                                                                                    

In India, we have seen several reported incidents where fake news or misinformation in form of Whatsapp rumours[iv] or social media posts have been used to fuel violence around the country.[v] Such posts have proven to be lethal and have cost human lives, be it the instances of the infamous Dadri lynching[vi] of 2015 to recent Delhi riots.[vii] 

The flood of fake news during this pandemic has polluted the air and has set ablaze lines of communal disharmony and political uneasiness. But before we go any further to dissect the problem of fake news. We need to understand the term ‘fake news’?

Defining ‘Fake News’

The term ‘fake news’ gained popularity around the ‘2017 US Election’ when US President Donald Trump took up the term. There were also controversies about how fake news in social media influenced the US elections and Brexit. There is no universally accepted definition of the term “fake news”. Fake news is a broader concept with several meanings and connotations attached to it.

The Ethical Journalism Network[viii] defines fake news as,

“information that is likely to be perceived as news, which has been deliberately fabricated and is disseminated to deceive others into believing falsehoods or doubting verifiable facts.”

The ‘Press Council of India[ix] (PCI) acknowledged that fake news is a global menace and defines fake news as ‘News, story, information, data, and report which is or are wholly or partly false”.

Recently, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, judge of the Supreme Court, while delivering an online lecture expressed his concern over the problem of fake news and misinformation dissemination. He stated,

“Fake news is more dangerous than Coronavirus itself. Its ramifications are manifold”.

He added that the Constitution-makers never envisaged the propensity of fake news as being caused by the new age media. He also emphasized the role of mainstream media and accountability from mainstream media to pull out fake news.[x]

Along the similar lines, Samar Halarnkar editor of Indiaspend.com said that ‘the transmission of fake news or misinformation by mainstream media has become a source of anxiety’. He added that ‘especially on TV, media misinformation is rampant’.[xi]

During the initial study, the author found that not only social media platforms are being extensively used to disperse fake news and misinformation but mainstream media in India barring some exception is equally helping fake news ecosystems[xii] to flourish.

The present article mainly focuses only on how mainstream media has become part of this problem not only by ignoring the threat of fake news but actively propagating it.

Fake News and the Role of Mainstream Media

The problem of fake news has already been existing in India for a long time but it became more lethal during this pandemic. There are reports[xiii] which suggest that there has been an exponential growth of fake news or misinformation during this period of the pandemic. It is a serious cause of concern as we are not only battling a health emergency but are also fighting the unseen virus that is fake news. The latter is equally dangerous if not more.

There are reports[xiv] which goes to show that social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and especially Whatsapp have become easy mediums to spread fake news or misinformation without any strict measures to scrutinize their content.

Coronavirus pandemic will be a testing time for the media to prove its credibility. Since especially, during this lockdown, there has been an increase in media consumption. As per reports, people are turning towards traditional media like TV and Newspapers for information.[xv]

Media is said to be the fourth pillar of democracy. It is expected to put out verified information as it holds the persuasive power to affect the eyes, the ears, and the mind of the public. 

It is trusted by its consumers to uphold the responsibility of precise and prudent reporting.[xvi] In these tough times, when we as a country are fighting a global pandemic, the reporting standard of the mainstream media channel has come into question repeatedly.

The mainstream media’s inclination for sensationalism and propaganda-driven news has led to inaccurate news dissemination. The rise of fake news and misinformation pumped through mainstream media has led to a steady decline of trust and confidence in mainstream media. There have been numerous incidents from the recent past[xvii] where mainstream media had equally contributed to this problem.

Interestingly, in a study conducted by the Non-profit and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and data journalism portal,[xviii] they found that more than Facebook or Whatsapp, fake news on traditional media can influence the minds of the public. The study found that fake news or misinformation has led to the depletion of trust in mainstream media. And it is this lack of trust that drives people to share and use social media platforms for information. It also found that newspapers are still one of the top sources of information for people across age groups.[xix]

Instances That Define the Decline of Mainstream Media Reporting

In recent times, we have had numerous incidents where mainstream media has spread fake news which includes both TV news channels with large viewership[xx] and widely circulated newspapers[xxi]. Together, they have not only spread fake news but used these fake news or misinformation as a tool to communalize and politicize the issues which have led to tragic results. 

Below are few examples of such incidents:

  1. Mainstream media’s irresponsible reporting on Tablighi Jamaat Case not only communalized the pandemic but reaffirmed existing prejudiced and polarization against one community. The Tablighi Jamat was blamed for spreading of coronavirus and naming them as ‘Corona jihad’ allowed the fringe elements to flood fake news targeting the Muslim community[xxii] and fueling Islamophobia in the country.[xxiii]
  2. Similarly, in a recent incident in Mumbai as migrant labourers gathered at the Bandra Railway station near masjid, the mainstream media especially TV news channels sensationalized their gathering. Giving it a religious angle and spreading hatred against the Muslim community.[xxiv]
  3. Kathua Rape and Murder’s case where an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, in Jammu and Kashmir, was brutally raped and murdered leading to an outpouring of anger from across the nation. One of the leading Hindi dailies, Dainik Jagran, one of the highest circulated newspaper in India published a front-page headline, ‘No rape of the girl in kathua, postmortem report only talks about injuries’. After fact-checking, the headline turned out to be misinformed about the incident.[xxv]
  4. The day Ram Nath Kovind [xxvi] sworn in as the president of India in July 2017, leading TV Channels like Republic TV, Zee News and leading dailies like The Times of India, The Economic Times, and The Financial Express reported that ‘The new president had gained a whopping three million followers in the span of just one hour’. This later turned out to be a ghastly mishap in reporting.[xxvii]

These are only a few incidents where mainstream media instead of playing the role of “gatekeeper” for trustworthy information have actively taken part in the dissemination of fake news or misinformation.[xxviii]

Let’s try to understand what makes the media so prone to misinformation or fake news?

With the evolution of different Media forms, the media markets have become very competitive. The growing influence of Political and Corporate houses on mainstream media makes them proxies in the battle of promoting personal, business, and political agenda through their platform. In the race of creating news content for 24*7 run news channel and the haste to be first in a culture of ‘breaking news’, it is increasingly broadcasting and publishing unverified or fake news, or misinformation. As a result, the truth becomes the biggest victim.

Mainstream media is currently compromising with the core principle of journalism viz., truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability. This compromise has led us to debate, whether Indian news media has lost its credibility?[xxix]

Earlier this year, an international non-profit, Reporter without Borders, ranked Indian media 142nd out of 180 countries in its report ‘The World Freedom Index 2020’, which is an annual press freedom index. The report said,

“…the Indian media reeling under a Hindu nationalist government, which has time and again tried to gag journalists.”[xxx]


The ecosystem of fake news is flourishing in India. We are not only fighting with coronavirus but also fighting the virus of fake news or misinformation. We are living in the internet age, where we have an overabundance of information. Factual news is getting buried under the avalanche of false information or misinformation. At present, India doesn’t have well-defined laws and regulations to take down fake news which opens another area of research.[xxxi]  

What is perturbing for us in the given state of affairs is how mainstream media has become part of the problem of fake news or misinformation. One can’t deny this fact that the media holds a unique power among all pillars of democracy that it can influence ideas and swing public opinions. Sadly, fake news and misinformation are being used to build fake narratives and agenda-driven stories by mainstream media that shape public opinions.

The idea of the media as guardian of the public interest, and as a conduit between the governing and the governed remains deeply ingrained in democratic societies like ours. Media has a great role to play in a democracy, as it has been ideally visualized as a platform for objective information and critical rational discourse.[xxxii]

It is high time that mainstream media acknowledges and introspects the underlying problem and repercussions of giving space to misinformation on its platform. The regulations need to come from within mainstream media channels or independent media bodies rather than the government. As government regulations could very well put independent journalism at risk. There is a need for constant efforts to regain credibility by upholding ethical and professional standards.

We need to understand that all the stakeholders- lawmakers, policymakers, online intermediaries, mainstream media and citizen need to hold collective responsibility to curb the menace of fake news.

The problem of fake news can’t be eliminated from our society but its risks can be curtailed. If we as citizens act sensibly and diligently by checking the source of an information, fact-checking websites and supporting independent journalism, a lot can be changed. These are a few basic steps to keep a check on fake news.

We need to think critically and analyze the information we receive on social media platforms or even from renowned mainstream platforms and then make deductive conclusions.

Based on the incidents that have happened in the recent past, this article tends to show that fake news has been used to fuel hyper-nationalism, fear, and hatred among religious communities, at the cost of the whole truth and fair information. It is time we recognize that mainstream media is part of the menace and make amends. 


[i] Shruti Menon, Coronavirus: The Human cost of fake news in India, The BBC Reality Check (01/07/2020)  available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-53165436 last seen on 14/07/2020

[ii] http://reports.weforum.org/outlook-14/making-the-outlook-on-the-global-agenda-2014/

[iii] PTI,’ Fake News more dangerous than Paid News’ The Print, 27/08/2020, available at https://theprint.in/india/fake-news-more-dangerous-than-paid-self-regulation-needed-says-ib-minister-javadekar/490080/ last seen on 28/08/2020

[iv] Shivam VIJ, ‘A single Whatsapp rumour has killed 29 people in India and nobody cares’ The Print, 02/07/2018, available at https://theprint.in/opinion/a-single-whatsapp-rumour-has-killed-29-people-in-india-and-nobody-cares/77634/ last seen on 14/07/2020

[v] Pooja Chaudhari, False rumours of child-kidnapping gangs viral on social media: A compilation, Alt News,   (27 /07/2019), available at https://www.altnews.in/false-rumours-of-child-kidnapping-gangs-viral-on-social-media-a-compilation/#:~:text=Home last seen on 14/07/2020

[vi] Chapel Mehra, The who, what and where of Dadri, The Hindu (13/10/2015) available at https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/dadri-lynching-incident-the-who-what-and-where-of-dadri/article7754192.ece last seen on 14/07/2020

[vii] Boom Fact Check Team, Fake news around Delhi riots and Other News You Almost Believed, Boom (01/03/2020) available at https://www.boomlive.in/fake-news/fake-news-around-delhi-riots-and-other-news-you-almost-believed last seen on 15/07/2020

[viii] The EJN is an International organization with a coalition of more than 70 groups of journalists, editors, press owners and media support groups from across the world. Available at https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/

[ix] The Press Council of India is one of the bodies that regulate media in India. PCI is a statutory body and was established under PCI Act of 1978 to preserve the freedom of the press and for maintaining and improving the standards of newspaper and news agencies in India.

[x] Sanjay Talwar, ‘Tolerance level in all section going down; Mindless forwarding leads to fake news: Justice S.K Kaul’, LiveLaw, 31/05/2020, available at https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/tolerance-levels-in-all-sections-going-down-justice-kaul-157621

[xi] Shuriah Niazi, ‘Indian TV channels amplify, justify and legitimize fake news’ Anadolu Agency, 03/05/2020 available at https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/-indian-tv-channels-amplify-justify-and-legitimize-fake-news-/1827364 last seen on 14/07/2020

[xii] Prathik Sinha, Dr Sumaiya Shaikh, Arjun Siddharth, ‘India Misinformed: The True Story’ (1st ed. 2019)

[xiii] Prachi Salve,  Manipulative Fake News on the rise in India under Lockdown, IndiaSpend, 03/05/2020, available at https://www.indiaspend.com/manipulative-fake-news-on-the-rise-in-india-under-lockdown-study/ last seen on 07/07/2020

[xiv] Pooja Chaudhari, ”Fake news” shared on social media affects the whole world; This Crisis Needs To Be Addressed Urgently, The Logical INDIAN (13/02/2017), available at https://thelogicalindian.com/story-feed/awareness/fake-news-on-social-media/ last seen on 15/07/2020

[xv] Malini Goyal, ‘India’s changed media consumption habits may remain post lockdown’ The Economic Times (03/05/2020), available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/media/entertainment/media/indias-changed-media-consumption-habits-may-remain-post-lockdown/articleshow/75508513.cms?from=mdr last seen on 15/07/2020

[xvi] Supra 10

[xvii] Sam Javed, ‘Top fake news stories circulated by Indian Media in 2017’, Alt News, 02/01/2020, available at https://www.altnews.in/top-fake-news-stories-circulated-indian-media-2017/ last seen on 15/07/2020

[xviii] Rakesh Dubbudu, ‘People Below age 20 or 50 more susceptible to fake news: Factly-IAMAI study’ Factly, 22/02/2019 available at https://factly.in/people-below-age-20-or-above-50-more-susceptible-to-fake-news-factly-iamai-study/  last seen on 15/07/2020

[xix] Ibid

[xx] Broadcast Audience Research Council India (BARC),  https://www.barcindia.co.in/statistic.aspx last seen 16/07/2020

[xxi] Creative Media thinks, ‘Top 10 most famous newspaper in circulation in India  by circulation’ Medium.com, 28/03/2020 available at https://medium.com/@social_27461/top-10-most-famous-newspapers-in-india-by-circulation-b8f16a10e354 last seen at 16/07/2020

[xxii] Aditi Chattopadhyay, ‘Top five fake news Targeting Muslim Community Amid Nationwide Lockdown’ The Logical Indian, 10/04/2020  available https://thelogicalindian.com/news/islamophobia-covid-19-coronavirus-fake-news-muslim-tablighi-jamaat-20543   last seen on 16/07/2020

[xxiii] Reethu Ravi, ‘World Press Freedom Ranking: Has Indian News Media lost credibility’, The Logical Indian, 29/04/2020 available at https://thelogicalindian.com/exclusive/india-world-press-freedom-index-20839 last seen on 16/07/2020

[xxiv] Supra 21

[xxv] Supra 12 at 173

[xxvi] Current President of Republic of India

[xxvii]  Supra 12, at 175

[xxviii] Amila Banerjee and Mehrazun Neesa Haque, ‘Is Fake News Real in India?’  Vol.8, Journal of Content, Community and Communication, 46-49 (2018)

[xxix] Hamid Ansari, ‘Journalism and the Media’s crisis of credibility in the age of Strident Nationalism’ The Wire, 10/03/2019 available at https://thewire.in/media/india-media-nationalism last seen on 15/07/2019

[xxx] Supra 21

[xxxi] Himanshu Arora, ‘Manifestation of fake news: Possible Legal and Policy issues to be considered before formulating Any law’, LiveLaw, 06/06/2020 available at https://www.livelaw.in/columns/manifestation-of-fake-news-possible-legal-policy-issues-to-be-considered-before-formulating-any-law-157929 last seen on 17/07/2020

[xxxii] Bhupen Singh, ‘Media in the time of COVID-19’  Economic and Political Weekly, 16/04/2020 available at https://www.epw.in/engage/article/media-time-covid-19  last seen on 16/07/2020



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