It was a Friday afternoon on April 16, 2020, when coronavirus infection was gripping the world and there were some sporadic cases in South Asian nations, when some local residents of Mahabir Chowk in Janakpur found some banknotes of Rs. 10 laying on the road. Nepal was under the lockdown due to Covid pandemic and there were some unverified claims circulating in Indian media that Covid-infected were throwing money after spitting on it to infect others. Soon the incident spread over social media as a wildfire claiming that coronavirus infected threw the banknotes.
Police were called as well as media were called. Police found a CCTV footage in a nearby place which had captured two women walking on the street. The police posted a screengrab of the video showing two women in its Facebook page asking the public to help identify the women and send the information to the media. The media, including the state-owned National News Agency (RSS), picked up the story. Many social media users posted about it. By next day, most of the media had covered a story saying that two women threw banknotes on the street of Janakpur and disappeared, and police was investigating the case as a suspected case of coronavirus spreading attempts.
The news quoted District Police Office Dhanusha as saying two women absconded after throwing banknotes at Mahabir Chowk of Janakpur. It further added that according to CCTV footage, the women were around 40 to 45 years old; and quoted district police spokesperson as saying that police was conducting investigations as the money was suspected of coronavirus infected. Police also sanitized the area and appealed people to remain calm without fear.
On April 18, police found the women in their home, which was behind the mosque and the news of their arrest was published in many media, some with misleading title such as ‘arrested from behind the mosque’ or ‘behind the madrasa’. They were kept in a police custody in a quarantine facility. On same day, police conducted RDT test, which at that time was not a reliable, and said that one of the women tested positive. Another round of news followed. On the evening of April 19, the police said both tested negative in more reliable PCR test and freed them.
Some samples of the published news:
|1||17/04/2020||National News Agency*||Two female ascounds after throwing banknotes on road in Janakpur|
|2||17/04/2020||Ratopati.com||When two women disappear after throwing money on road|
|3||17/04/2020||Ktmdainik.com||These are women who run away after throwing money, if anyone spot them, call police|
|4||18/04/2020||Pahilopost.com||Sister-in-laws who threw money on road in Janakpur arrested from behind madrasa|
|5||18/04/2020||Bizshala.com||Women who threw money on Janakpur road tested positive in RDT, is search on for planned corona spreaders?|
|6||19/04/2020||Annapurna Post||Both women who threw banknotes in Janakpur tested negative|
|* This news was distributed by the National News Agency and many media, printed newspapers and online news portal, reproduced it.|
The two women of sisters-in-law – Amuna Khatun and Alina Khatun. Husband of one of them was migrant worker while other was a widow. They had gone to bank to get money and for easiness to transaction of their small money, had got Rs. 10 banknotes and were moving home when they dropped a few banknotes. When locals tried to ask them, they were probably terrified because of corona and lockdown so they probably walked away as soon as they could.
ABCDE Framework Analysis
Secondary actors: Online media
|Transparency: The actor were transparent and identified themselves.|
Intent: The behaviour suggests some aspersive intent.
Dependency: Police press notice on their social media page leading to publication of news in online media.
|Numerous false news stories about two women.|
Harm: Hampered religious sentiments as hatred to spitted against Muslims accusing them of spreading coronavirus.
Synthetic: The content was unverified and false information.
Narrative(s): The content is aligned with the misinformation narrative.
|Target audience:Nepali population|
Platforms:Social media and online media.
|Defamation of two female named; unnecessary hassle and public harassment against them leading to arrest and custody; hatred against religious community.|
Actor: There were various actor involved in this. The first actor were residents and social media users who panicked fearing the coronavirus infection and spread the rumours and frantically called police and media. Second, it was the District Police Office, who to control the panic among the people asked to calm down, sanitized the area and posted the screengrab on their social media page and provided it to media. Third, it was media, many of which just carried the police version without double verification and some of which seasonalize the report.
Behaviour: The actor was transparent in identifying themselves and were using lawful means of communication. The actor didn’t seem to have an aspersive intent, rather a public service duty intent but in doing so were spreading misinformation and added some sensualising elements.
Content: The contents were the text news report, social media posts and photos in mainstream media and social media. Although details of incident of the reports were mostly correct, the incident was intentionally linked to unverified element that stated, ‘spitting on the banknotes and throwing it on the street to spread coronavirus infection’. Thereby most the posts and report were misleading.
Degree: The content was targeted to Nepali citizens as all of them were published by Nepali media or social media users, mostly in Nepali language. A google search of keywords yielded in more than 2,300 results, mostly linking to the online news portal, thereby it was safe to assume that the misinformation reached a huge number of populations.
Effect: The misinformation created panic among public in Janakpur while the police were forced to use resources in locating, taking in custody, and doing corona tests on two innocent women. The two women spent two days in police custody when they and the wider Muslim community were subjected of abusive, demeaning and religiously hurting comments.
The case has been identified as an incident of misinformation. Although the misinformation was spread by a huge number of people, media and a state agency, their intent was not to malign people or community but rather guided by the civic duty sense in the early days of coronavirus. The police were quick to remove the photo (the CCTV footage screengrab was removed from the police Facebook page within a few hours); expedite investigation and tests, and timely information outflow to keep people updated with correct and updated information, whereas media also covered all aspects of the incident as and when they came in as new information.
In the early days of Covid pandemic, many things about the virus and infection were unclear and there was many misinformation that people, state agency and media intentionally or unintentionally spread. Some of those misinformation, although had no malign intention, created public panic and seemed to have impact on the harmony of the society. An example of such misinformation was the case of the women throwing money on the road of Janakpur – where citizens, security agency and media – were all unintentionally involved in spreading misinformation. The misinformation, since was about two Muslim women, had the religious sentiments. Quick action by the state agency and media’s readiness to publish updated information, although that was contrary to what they had earlier published or posted, however limited the effect.
Google search of keywords: https://www.google.com.np/search?q=%E0%A4%9C%E0%A4%A8%E0%A4%95%E0%A4%AA%E0%A5%81%E0%A4%B0+%E0%A4%AA%E0%A5%88%E0%A4%B8%E0%A4%BE+%E0%A4%9B%E0%A4%B0%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%A8%E0%A5%87+%E0%A4%AE%E0%A4%B9%E0%A4%BF%E0%A4%B2%E0%A4%BE