"It's the legs of the media that are weak which tremble before the hunter of a goon, not women wrestlers."
— Vinesh Phogat
The Commonwealth Games medalist had scathing words for the media on Monday after it published reports saying Sakshi Malik had withdrawn from the protests.
Malik tweeted to refute the reports, saying she had merely resumed her duties at the Indian Railways and she continues to be a part of the protests.
ये खबर बिलकुल ग़लत है। इंसाफ़ की लड़ाई में ना हम में से कोई पीछे हटा है, ना हटेगा। सत्याग्रह के साथ साथ रेलवे में अपनी ज़िम्मेदारी को साथ निभा रही हूँ। इंसाफ़ मिलने तक हमारी लड़ाई जारी है। कृपया कोई ग़लत खबर ना चलाई जाए। pic.twitter.com/FWYhnqlinC— Sakshee Malikkh (@SakshiMalik) June 5, 2023
For weeks, wrestlers have been protesting against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the chief of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and a Member of Parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He is accused of sexual harassment and faces two FIRs.
While Singh remains a free man, the wrestlers have been detained, dragged, and subjected to misinformation. It was of course not the first time when misinformation was directed at protesters. It happened earlier during the farmers' protest as well.
Speaking to Outlook, farmer leader Rakesh Tikait, who has come out in support of wrestlers, said that the players will be pressurised from multiple fonts so the momentum of the movement is broken.
While it was incorrect media reportage this time, it was false photos of smiling wrestlers in a police vehicle.
Good morning! This is how the WhatsApp fake news factory operates: images of wrestlers being taken away by the police were tampered with to show them smiling. See the original and the fake: and then ask yourself: who is behind this smear campaign? Let truth prevail (and don’t go… pic.twitter.com/WVqPMD9guy— Rajdeep Sardesai (@sardesairajdeep) June 1, 2023
Misinformation against popular protests
Protests thrive on popular support and misinformation seeks to undermine that popular support.
It was on display when the farmers' protest was said to be foreign-funded and several comments were made to undermine the legitimacy it enjoyed.
This is not just the case in India but in the world as well. Studies have noted the role of misinformation in trying to suppress protests abroad as well.
A report published by the Louisiana State University (LSU) noted that racial justice protests in the United States after George Floyd's death were subjected to misinformation campaigns. The report noted that the misinformation ranged from calling the protests funded by billionaire George Soros to claiming that Floyd was not even dead.
In India, the farmers' protests were similarly subjected to misinformation about several aspects.
The Quint reported that its fact-checking unit debunked 101 pieces of misinformation between October 2020 and October 2021 and found that posts discrediting the protesters were the most common.
"The Quint's WebQoof has debunked 101 pieces of misinformation between October 2020 and October 2021 and we found that the most prevalent narrative in the items analysed was the targeting of the farmers – little over 39 per cent of the sample – thereby trying to discredit the protests," reported The Quint.
The assessment further noted that misinformation also labelled the protesters as Khalistanis, supporters of the idea of a separate Sikh state called Khalistan.
"Out of a sample of 101 stories, nearly 40 per cent of the stories filed by The Quint's WebQoof team were related to claims targeting farmers in an effort to discredit the protests...For instance, videos showing protesters desecrating the national flag have been shared on multiple occasions to claim that the farmers are not fighting against the farm laws but for a separate state – Khalistan," reported The Quint.
There have been several incidents when misinformation was peddled against Indian protests
Farmers protesting against the now-repealed farm laws received massive support from the Indian diaspora abroad in addition to Western celebrities like Rihanna. Several politicians too spoke on the issues that often irked the Indian Right.
Since the protesters were largely from Punjab, and Punjabis and Sikhs are influential in Canada, Trudeau was roped in the misinformation campaign.
Notably, the protests being foreign-sponsored, that too by elements in Canada which are known to be associated with the Khalistan movement, was a tool to discredit the protests as foreign-sponsored.
As part of this campaign, an earlier photo of Trudeau sitting with Sikhs was circulated with the wrong captions.
In another incident, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Amit Malviya posted a cropped video to show that there was no lathi charge.
Malviya's post was in response to Rahul Gandhi's post on the lathi charge.
The Logical Indian noted, "BJP IT cell head Amit Malviya shared a cropped video to show police did not resort to lathi-charge against farmers during the ongoing protest and no physical harm was done. But in reality, police not only resort to lathi-charge but also used teargas and water cannons against the farmers. The farmer in the video shared by Malviya also claimed that his back, forearm and wrist were injured by the baton."
Going back to 2020, a post was circulated claiming that protesters were paid a fixed sum of Rs 500 to be at Shaheen Bagh, Delhi.
Shaheen Bagh in Delhi was home to a sit-in protest for months. Large groups of people blocked the road in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Fact-checking website Alt News located the original image from which the morphed image was created.
"Alt News did a reverse image search of the viral image on Google and found a January 16 article by The Statesman with the original photograph. According to the report, the picture was clicked by Money Sharma/ AFP (Agence France-Presse). Here, the banner reads, ‘Take back CAA Take back NCR [Translated from CAA वापस लो NRC वापस लो]’," reported Alt News.
Even at the time of anti-CAA protests, a video was circulated at the time claiming that the anti-CAA protesters were paid.
In the video, a man was seen handing something to women. It was claimed that the man distributing money to women, reported The Times of India, which added that Rahul Gandhi’s voice was also heard in the background.
The video was found to be false.
“Times Fact Check has found that an old video from Manipur showing a man paying some women, with an audio bit of a speech made by Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat months later superimposed on it, is being shared with a false claim that protesters at Delhi's Shaheen Bagh take money to agitate against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019,” concluded the ToI fact-check.
In the context of the current development that explores how misinformation creates to daunt a protest, Outlook looks back at its coverage of busting fake news and myths in relation to global incidents and movements.