People wait in a queue to collect free rations outside a government store during a nationwide lockdown imposed as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Allahabad, India on April 15, 2020. (AFP / Sanjay Kanojia)

New hoax circulates online that India has outlawed social media posts about COVID-19

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A claim has been shared repeatedly in multiple Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter posts that the Indian government has outlawed social media posts about the novel coronavirus pandemic through a piece of national legislation called the Disaster Management Act. The claim is false; Indian officials said the posts were “misleading and false”; AFP found two of the purported sections of the law cited in the misleading posts do not exist under the act and the other does not mention a social media ban related to COVID-19 content.

The post was published here on Facebook on April 7, 2020.

Below is a screenshot of the misleading post:

Screenshot of misleading Facebook post

The post states, in part: “Group admin is requested to close group for 2days as police can take action against admin & group members vide section 68, 140 & 188 if anyone even by mistake post joke on corona.” 

“Mandate for All: Tonight 12 ( midnight) onwards Disaster Management Act has been implemented across the country. According to this update, apart from the Govt department no other citizen is allowed to post any update or share any forward related to Corona virus and it being punishable offence……/centre-seeks-sc-direction-that-no-”

The website in the post directs users to a report published on March 31, 2020 on Live Law, a website covering legal news in India.

As of April 14, 2020, COVID-19 has killed at least 117,000 people and infected more than 1.8 million others, according to this report published by World Health Organization (WHO).

In response, India imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 24, 2020 in a bid to curb the growing COVID-19 epidemic. Here is an AFP report on the government announcement. 

A similar claim was also shared here and here on Facebook and here and here on Twitter.

The claim is false. India's Ministry of Home Affairs invoked the Disaster Management Act, as seen in this statement, as it imposed the 21-day lockdown.

Below is a screenshot of the relevant part of the release:

Screenshot of the government's statement

However, while the misleading post mentions sections 68, 140 and 188, AFP found that sections 140 and 188 do not exist under the act

A section 68 does exist, but there is no mention of a social media ban. It states: “Every order or decision of the National Authority or the National Executive Committee, the State Authority, or the State Executive Committee or the District Authority, shall be authenticated by such officers of the National Authority or the National Executive Committee or, the State Executive Committee, or the District Authority, as may be authorised by it in this behalf.”  

Below is a screenshot of section 68 of the act in the government release:

Screenshot of relevant section

AFP also found that the Live Law report mentioned in the misleading post does not mention an immediate ban on social media posts. 

It instead discusses how the Indian Supreme Court denied the Indian home secretary’s request to “issue a direction” that would require “electronic/print media/web portal or social media” to first seek “the true factual position from the Central government” before publishing anything about COVID-19. The Court responded it "does not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic", but did "direct the media to refer to and publish the official version".

On April 6, 2020, a spokesperson for Live Law posted on Twitter that the claims were “fake” and published its own debunk here.

A similar misleading claim that circulated in India about social media posts during the COVID-19 pandemic was previously debunked by AFP here

India’s official Press Information Bureau also denied the claims in this tweet published April 2, 2020, saying: “Messages circulating on social media claiming-apart from Govt no citizen is allowed to post/forward update on #COVID19- is MISLEADING & FALSE. Circulating unverified/false news leading to panic is prohibited. As responsible Citizens let's not circulate fake forwards.”