“Yes, Himal. I am calling you to give an important information.” Thus started an audio file that became viral in late March 2020, when coronavirus infection was rare in Nepal, and the fear of Covid-19 among the public was high. The audio, made like a phone call but with only one voice, claimed that six out of nine people tested at the Novic Hospital were found infected by coronavirus.
The audio first appeared in the Facebook of 20-year-old Bibek Thapa Magar at 10PM on March 20, 2020, with a post: “Even if corona pandemic has hit Nepal, why government hide such a news. Listen to the audio below… compulsory.” With the post, he linked an audio uploaded to his own site.
Next morning, he found that although his post was not liked or shared by many, the audio clip had gone viral to an extend that it was being shared in every messaging platform – be it WhatApp or Facebook Messenger or Viber. The hospital in Kathmandu, which didn’t have any coronavirus testing facility then, refuted the claim.
Thapa Magar was arrested in less than 17 hours of posting the audio and charged with cyber-crime. Thapa Magar told police that he created the clip to increase reach and likes of his Facebook page. Fact-checker Umesh Shrestha pointed out a few suspicious aspects in the audio that clearly indicated that it was a fake audio, still thousands of people continued sharing it even after the police arrest. Shrestha pointed out that although it was meant to be a phone call, there was only one voice, the address of the hospital was wrong, and Norvic Hospital was not listed as hospital to test coronavirus in official documents shared at the time by the Ministry of Health. However, the audio remained viral for a few more days.
ABCDE Framework Analysis
|Prime actors:A 17-year-old boy.|
Secondary actors: General public.
|Transparency: The actor is transparent on Facebook page but not transparent in the content.|
Intent: The behaviour suggests no aspersive intent.
Dependency: Facebook and messaging apps were used to reach millions of people.
|An audio with misinformation regarding coronavirus spread.|
Harm: The content led public to panic in fear.
Synthetic: The content was fake and created to make it viral with unverified and fake information.
Narrative(s): The content is aligned with the disinformation narrative.
|Target audience:Nepali population|
|Led public to panic and probably to riskier public health behaviour; and mistrust towards authorities at the time of crisis.|
Actor: A 20-year-old ordinary youth, Bibek Thapa Magar, who wanted more likes in his Facebook post. He was arrested by the police and charged with cyber-crime for spreading false information.
Behaviour: In the content (audio file), the actor is not identifiable thereby the creator and the speaker were anonymous. However, the in the Facebook post where the audio file was first shared, the actor was transparent in identifying himself and was using lawful means of communication. The actor didn’t seem to have an aspersive intent but was well aware that the content he was sharing was not correct.
Content: The content was an audio file, claimed to be a phone call, which contained misinformation about coronavirus test. The sound in the file falsely claimed that many people who were testing for coronavirus were positive and the government was not making public right information about the spread of coronavirus in Nepal.
Degree: The content was targeted to Nepali citizens as the audio was in Nepali.
Effect: The audio file created a widespread fear among public and it was shared through messenger apps – WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook Messenger. Although the exact number of people who accessed the audio file cannot be determined, given the fact that the arrest of the actor by police was widely covered by mainstream media, and there was analysis published in the top national daily newspaper about how the rumour spread indicate that its reach was wide.
The case has been identified as an incident of disinformation. The actor who created the audio and first uploaded it on the internet was well-aware that the content of the file was fake yet decided to upload it hoping it would go viral and boost likes of his Facebook page. Although the disinformation was initially uploaded by a youth on his Facebook page with limited number of likes, it was later shared and forwarded by thousands of people who believed the content of the audio file could be true.
In the early days of Covid pandemic, many things about the virus and infection were unclear and there was many misinformation that people intentionally and unintentionally spread. The viral ‘Hello Himal’ audio file was an example of such disinformation, although had no malign intention, it created public panic and was a public health information crisis. The hospital and police were quick in reaction and the audio file was proved to be a disinformation in less than 24 hours.