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The human cost of India’s coronavirus fake news

Fake or misleading news can have a real impact on those who find themselves the targets. This has been a particular problem in India during the coronavirus pandemic, where reliable sources of news are frequently drowned out by unverified information online.

False information has had serious consequences for minority communities as well as some business sectors such as the meat industry.

The Reality Check team has looked at the extent of this misinformation and some of those directly affected.

Religious tensions exposed

India’s religious fault lines are an important theme across false stories spreading online, something that has been further highlighted by the coronavirus outbreak.

We’ve looked back at claims debunked by five Indian fact-checking websites between January and June this year.

They fall under four broad headings:

Of the 1,447 fact-checks on five Indian websites, claims around coronavirus dominated, making up 58% of them.

This was largely related to false cures, lockdown rumours and conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus.

In the period between January and early March (before the coronavirus outbreak took hold), fake news was dominated by the Citizenship Amendment Act, a new law that offers citizenship to people from three neighbouring countries, but only if they are not Muslim.

The law led to protests across the country by those who said it would marginalise Muslims.

Riots in mainly Muslim neighbourhoods in north-east Delhi in February also fuelled a lot of misleading claims around that time.

This included doctored videos, fake images, the reusing of old videos and images in a different context, fake messages, and messages with fake attributions.

What happened when coronavirus hit India?

Our analysis found that misinformation targeting Muslims spiked in the first week of April.

This was after several members of an Islamic group called the Tablighi Jamaat, who had attended a religious gathering in Delhi, tested positive.

As more members of the group tested positive, false claims about Muslims deliberately spreading the virus became viral.

In several parts of the country, there were calls for an economic boycott of Muslim businesses.

Vegetable seller Imran – who didn’t want to use his real name – told the BBC that when a fake video on WhatsApp said to show a Muslim man spitting on bread went viral, calls for a boycott of Muslims grew.

“We were scared to enter villages where we would usually go to sell vegetables,” said Imran, who lives in Uttar Pradesh state.

Imran and other vegetable vendors from his community now only sell their produce at a city market.

In the capital Delhi, the Minorities Commission, which works to safeguard the rights of minority communities, formally notified the police of the need to act against people stopping Muslims from entering residential areas or carrying on with their business.

“Not only people who were associated with the Tablighi Jamaat [were attacked], there were attacks on Muslims in all parts of India,” Zafarul Islam, the chairman of the commission, told the BBC.

Meat traders targeted

False claims were also widely spread in India that eating vegetarian food and eliminating meat from your diet could prevent you getting coronavirus.

The government launched campaigns to stop the spread of such misinformation.

These false WhatsApp messages and social media posts had an impact on both Muslim and non-Muslim groups alike who were involved in the meat industry.

The Indian authorities made an assessment that by April, misinformation about meat-eating generally had contributed to losses of up to 130bn rupees (£1.43bn) in the poultry industry.

Poultry is one of the main forms of meat consumed in India.

“We were giving away chicken for free because we didn’t know what to do with the stock,” said Sujit Prabhavle, a meat trader in the western state of Maharashtra.

“Our sales fell by 80%,” he said.

“I saw a message on WhatsApp that said eating chicken would spread coronavirus, so people stopped buying meat,” said Touhid Baraskar, another meat seller from Maharashtra.

Some of the most viral false information has included fake claims that former top Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar had asked for meat shops to be shut.

“When misinformation comes from sources they trust, people will believe whatever comes their way without fact-checking it,” said Pratik Sinha, founder of Alt-News, a fact-checking website.

The meat industry was not the only victim of fake news.

The fall in sales in the poultry industry had a major knock-on effect on the sale of eggs, and of maize – which goes into much of the feed for chickens.

The sale of eggs fell by 30% in Delhi, 21% in Mumbai and by 52% in Hyderabad in Telangana state between January and June, according to official data.

Maize farmers are now selling their produce up to 35% lower than the minimum support price offered by the Indian government as a result of the fall in demand.

Additional research by Shadab Nazmi in Delhi

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Germany arrests far-right suspect over threat to attack Muslims

Police find weapons in house of 21-year-old man who was inspired by last year’s Christchurch massacre in New Zealand.

Police in Germany has arrested a man on suspicion of planning to kill Muslims in an attack inspired by the 2019 massacre in two Christchurch, New Zealand, mosques, according to prosecutors.

The 21-year-old from the northern city of Hildesheim had announced his attack plans “in an anonymous internet chat”, the state prosecutor’s office in the town of Celle said on Monday.

More:

  • Hanau mourns its loved ones murdered in far-right attack

  • Timeline: Far-right attacks in Germany

  • Germany shisha lounge shootings: All the latest updates

Initial investigations show the suspect “has for some time been considering the idea of committing an attack in which he wanted to kill numerous people in order to attract worldwide media attention”, prosecutors said.

The suspect referenced the Christchurch attacker, who killed 51 people in two mosques in March 2019, and said he wanted to carry out a similar attack.

“His aim was to kill Muslims,” prosecutors said.

Weapons found

Police found weapons in the suspect’s home, as well as electronic files containing far-right content.

He was arrested on Saturday and faces charges of threatening to commit criminal offences and financing violence through the purchase of weapons.

Germany has been rocked by a string of far-right attacks over the past 12 months.

A gunman with apparent far-right beliefs killed nine people at a shisha bar and a cafe in the city of Hanau, near Frankfurt, in February, while two people were killed in an attack on a synagogue in Halle, near Leipzig, in October.

In June 2019, pro-immigration politician Walter Lubcke was found shot dead at his home in the central state of Hesse, and a far-right sympathiser has been charged with his murder.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer proclaimed in March that far-right violence was “the biggest danger for democracy in Germany”, promising a beefed-up security response.


Inside Story

Is the far-right shaping the EU’s migration policy?

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The World Tomorrow: Former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks talks to Sky News’ Ed Conway and Sajid Javid

Former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks speaks to Sky News’ economics editor Ed Conway and former chancellor Sajid Javid about why we must use the coronavirus pandemic to change society for the better.

He tells The World Tomorrow podcast why he believes Remembrance Sunday should be split in two to remember the past and then the future by celebrating all of Britain’s communities, with a “we not I” mentality.

The prolific author and philosopher explores how racism is everyone’s problem and why the pandemic has shown how the West’s push for globalisation needs to take into account more than just economics.

Lord Sacks looks at how mistakes are key for us to learn – and why Zoom has brought his religious community closer to the rest of the world.

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The president who ‘argued with God’

In the unmistakable cadence of a preacher, Malawi’s new President, Lazarus Chakwera, appealed for unity in his country shortly after he was sworn in on Sunday.

The day of the week seemed fitting as the former head of the Malawi Assemblies of God, one of the largest Christian denominations in the country, treated the stage like a pulpit to inspire fervour with his words.

The country is fractured after a divisive 13 months following the disputed 2019 election, the result of which was cancelled by the courts.

Speaking in a style and accent that had hints of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King, President Chakwera talked about the dream “that binds us together [which] is for us to enjoy shared prosperity, not just freedom”.


But he then he said it was no good just having a dream.

“The time has come for us to go beyond dreaming.

“We all must wake up because this is a time to arise from slumber and make our dream come true.”

Mr Chakwera is a man of God in a deeply religious country.

The 65-year-old emerged as leader of the Malawi Congress Party in 2013 without having any previous political experience.

Fighting with God

He came to the job after leading the Assemblies of God for 24 years, but admitted, when he was first running for president in 2014, that making the decision to become a politician was not easy.

“I had to argue with God over a direction in life that didn’t seem natural to me,” he said in a video published by St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in California.

But after a lot of discussion “God was saying that: ‘I’m extending your ministry so that you’re able to pastor a whole nation'”.

In another interview, in 2017, he said that in the conversations with God he turned to chapter three of the book of Exodus in the Bible, in which God appears to Moses and says he should lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

This showed him how a leader can address both the spiritual and the social needs of the people, his adviser Sean Kampondeni told the BBC.

But he does not want to turn Malawi into a theocracy and neither does he want to proselytise, he added.

“The president believes that government is something that God subscribes to in nations in order to bring about order and progress in society, for the flourishing of human beings,” Mr Kampondeni explained.

“In Malawi, he feels that the government institutions have been deliberately crippled over the last 25 years to not provide that service and he is there as someone who is offering themselves to do that.”

President of Malawi

Born 5 April 1955

Studied theology in Malawi, South Africa and USA

Pastor and leader ofthe Malawi Assemblies of God church

Authored several books on religion including Reach the Nations

Ran for president in 2014 and came second

Became presidentin 2020 after defeating the incumbent

Standing at the apex of power and addressing the nation on Sunday, Mr Chakwera has come a long way from the boy who grew up in a village outside the capital, Lilongwe, who was, by his own admission, crippled by shyness.

The son of a preacher and evangelist who established several churches, his career as a pastor may have already seemed mapped out.

But at his prestigious secondary school, where he learned his accent by mimicking an American teacher, he initially had ambitions to be a doctor.

He thought that by being a medic he would have to talk to large numbers of people, he told journalist Joab Chakhaza in an interview in 2017.

Political v spiritual leadership

But during his education he says he “met God” and “began to redirect my life towards ministry”.

The father of four now wants to take that energy and vision and put it into running a country.

To those who think that there is a big difference between the lofty aims of spiritual leadership and the often low skulduggery of politics, Mr Chakwera’s adviser said the president was well aware of how to be political.

“Anybody who understands the political process and the journey to the presidency – the politics does not begin when you enter office,” Mr Kampondeni told the BBC.

“You have to do a lot of politics even just to enter public office.”

But, he said, the president’s approach will be different and he will not treat it like a dirty game.

He will now have to use his skill to bring the country together.

Addressing the nation and not just the crowds of jubilant supporters in Lilongwe, Mr Chakwera said that those who did not vote for him may view his presidency with “fear and grief”.

But he tried to reassure them.

“This new Malawi is a home for you too and so long as I am its president, it will be a home in which you too will prosper.”

The president’s defeat of the incumbent, Peter Mutharika, was so overwhelming, with 59% of the vote, that initially many will be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, journalist Chakhaza told the BBC.

Transcending tribalism

“But he’s got a huge task as the past regime was so openly tribalistic in its appointments of people and people felt sidelined, especially from the central and northern regions,” he added.

There will be pressure to try and rebalance the past and people “will be keen to see if he can transcend that”.

The president’s supporters believe he can and he will offer a new kind of leadership inspired by God and driven by the needs of Malawians.

Inevitably, though, tough decisions will need to be made, not only in relation to the immediate challenge of coronavirus, but also how to tackle corruption and foster economic growth. These may begin to test his popularity.

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Coronavirus: The remote Bosnian village untouched by the global pandemic

Residents from Bosnia’s highest village say they have not had a single case of coronavirus since the pandemic began.

Residents of Lukomir, who move away during the harsh winter months, returned just as lockdown was brought in.

The Bjelasnica mountain settlement is elevated almost 1,500m (4,921ft) above sea level.

“There is no corona here. We move freely, without face masks and (protective) gloves,” said 83-year-old Vejsil Comor.

“I joke with (city people), I ask them why they must wear gloves when it is not winter.

“But (they’ve) got used to wearing gloves (as protection against COVID-19), so it would be best if they hold onto that tradition, I think.

“It is important to keep traditions alive, we have a saying here that it is better for a village, or a city, to die than to give up its traditions.

“If I had to go to the city, I too would wear gloves.”

Raha Elezovic, 65, said: “The coronavirus has not reached us.

“It spread all over the world, even in America, but not in Lukomir.”

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