Kolkata: Wife of a senior IAS officer, college professors and principals, a government school teacher, president of a prestigious Kolkata club, a former MP, and a senior editor with a national group of TV channels.
Police in Kolkata have stumbled upon some unlikely suspects in their bid to curb fake news about the Covid-19 pandemic.
The aforementioned people are among 43 suspected social media rumour-mongers who have been summoned since mid-March and grilled for hours, according to a senior officer in the Kolkata Police cyber crimes wing. Four people, including a headmistress, have also been arrested as the state looks to prevent fake news from triggering panic around the pandemic, the officer added.
Kolkata Police have been on a crackdown against rumours about Covid-19 since 18 March, a day after West Bengal recorded its first positive case, following a directive from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The chief minister has ordered the police brass to lodge FIRs against anyone indulging in rumour-mongering and trying to create panic.
More arrests could follow in the coming days, the officer said, adding that the accused will be booked under the Information Technology (IT) Act and other relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The former MP, for example, has been booked under the IPC sections for promoting disharmony, spreading malicious content, provoking tension and inciting people, police sources said.
‘Govt suppressing data’
According to sources in police, a profile analysis of the people on the radar for spreading fake news revealed they were privileged and literate, and not uneducated people with restricted access to accurate information.
The accused primarily shared rumours on Facebook and through WhatsApp groups, police sources said.
The false information shared included claims that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had tested positive for Covid-19, and that she had been quarantined.
Another rumour suggested New Alipore, a posh south Kolkata locality, had become a hotspot for coronavirus transmission with “15 cases in block P and 2 in the lane nearby”. Other pieces of fake news claimed that the government was suppressing data about the actual Covid-19 incidence in the state, and that all the doctors at a certain hospital were testing positive.
An old video of Mumbai was shared to claim police was not enforcing the lockdown in Muslim-dominated areas.
Tracking down the origins of each message requires a tough effort aided by technology. For each of the fake posts shared on WhatsApp, for example, the cyber crimes team of Kolkata Police starts by tracking down the administrators and members of groups where it has been posted and then tries to establish where it originated.
Police authorities have contacted WhatsApp with details of the groups where rumours have been shared, and requested the Facebook-owned social media giant to take down all such posts. Other social media portals have been approached as well.
Kolkata Joint Commissioner of Police (crime) Murlidhar Sharma said police were “trying to track all such malicious and fake contents and the creators”.
“No one will be spared. We are maintaining a strict vigil on cyberspace to deal with such posts that may trigger tension during such a medical emergency,” he told ThePrint. “Relevant sections of the IPC and the IT Act will be added in the FIRs.”
Kolkata Police Commissioner Anuj Sharma had said earlier this month that a special team had been created to monitor fake news, and strict action would be taken against people who would indulge in rumour-mongering.
As of Monday evening, West Bengal had recorded 22 positive coronavirus cases and two deaths.