Content patterns in COVID-19 related digital misinformation in India

Syeda Zainab Akbar, Joyojeet Pal

(Suggested Citation: Akbar, S., Pal, J. (2020) Content patterns in COVID-19 related digital misinformation in India. Microsoft Research India. Available online at:

We conducted a preliminary survey of debunked COVID-19 related messages online, to create a taxonomy of misinformation. The goal of this work is to understand the language – including topic and metaphor of misinformation, to help understand the strategies employed to misinform people. Unfortunately, it is difficult to estimate the extent to which a piece of misinformation goes viral, but we hope to regularly update this page from various sources, with new stories that are known to be untrue.

We identified four broad themes that help define these messages, Alarmism, Culture, Cure, and Nature & the Environment. While some messages did not fit cleanly into these categories, these were the closest approximation we came up with following several iterations of qualitative coding

In addition to these themes, we see a few recurrent stylistic patterns. These include:

  • The use of “announcements” which include formal-looking letterheads or sources
  • Superimposing false text under legitimate sources such as Twitter/FB handles of key leaders or media or under screenshots of television or web based news souces with “Breaking News”
  • The presentation of data, attributed to organizations, but without traceable citation
  • The use of Corona-unconnected people with East Asian features as a stylistic element
  • Speculation about future scenarios
  • Use of details – naming establishments, temperatures of infection etc. which suggest specifics, and make fake news more believable
  • Use of public figures as key actors in a story, presumably to get viral traction
  • The use of alarmist language and stylistic elements intended to cause panic

In many ways the COVID related misinformation is not very different from other forms of suspect information that crosses our path, including phishing or political or economic misinformation. But the existence of a global pandemic and widespread uncertainty has given rise to an extraordinary number of mis-informational messages that are either deliberate mischief or generated and spread out of ignorance. This can also come from legitimate sources, including the government, and mainstream media, which are quick to put alarmist news, or suggestions on cures that are not empirically verified. 

Below are the four categories and subsequent tables with links to the fact-checked site. For this work, we used data from Tattle a civic tech organization that maintains a list of debunked misinformation, based on six fact-checkers that maintain public repositories of their fact-checked information. These are AltNewsBOOMliveFactlyIndiatoday Fact CheckQuint Webqoof, and VishwasNews. There are some challenges with this sampling – we stuck to fact-checking that was public and linked to the original fact-checked site for each story, while a lot of fake news travels in encrypted platforms. However, we would like to expand our work to more fact-checkers. This work also inordinately samples English-language fake news, however we will be releasing multilingual versions of this document since much of this fake news makes it across languages.

  Category Definition
1 Alarmism We classify a message to be alarmist when it refers to fear-invoking messages such as those with violent imagery, death or mass-killings.
2 Culture We classify a message to be about culture when messages have religious connotations, celebrity or societal references.
3 Cure We classify messages under cure-based when messages suggest remedies – alternative or mainstream – that make claims on curing people of the virus.
4 Nature We classify a message as nature when messages have references to animals and the environment.  


We find that alarmist messages are intended to create fear in the minds of viewers and this is done by highlighting three broad elements:

  • Scale/intensity: Messages that amplify the number of deaths, speed of intensification
  • Disgust: Messages that show explicit images of dead or unwell persons
  • Conspiracy: Messages that suggest conspiracy or attacking intent relating to disease spread
Claim Fact Image
1 People infected with Coronavirus in China screaming for help This is actually a video of people singing patriotic songs.
2 China seek court’s approval to kill over 20,000 coronavirus patients is a fake news website with several domain names. The story of 20,000 cases reported worldwide has been misreported to cause havoc. 
3 People scattered and fallen on the road due to Coronavirus outbreak in China The image is from an art project in remembrance of the 528 victims of the “Katzbach” Nazi concentration camp in Germany.
A video of a parasite being removed from a person’s lip  The video is not related to coronavirus and is an old video of a maggot being pulled out of a woman’s lips.
Young Woman collapsed in Malaysian supermarket, died of Coronavirus The young woman’s family reported that the woman collapsed in the departmental store due to heart failure and not an infection caused by the coronavirus.
6 Viral ‘Emergency Notification’ by India’s Health ministry on Coronavirus The message is a hoax alert for scaremongering. The use of alarmist language such as “Most Urgent, Very Serious, Important Information” in the title and very specific but unsubstantiated data in text on throat membranes and temperature of water to be consumed are hints the news is fake. 
7 Video of a family dead due to novel Coronavirus This video was posted one-year ago on youtube and is unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak.
8 ‘Four dead in Gandhi hospital’ due to coronavirus Hospital confirmed in an interview that no deaths have occurred due to Coronavirus in Gandhi hospital, Telangana. The number of four deaths is an alarmist tactic since at the time there weren’t that many casualties reported even throughout the country.
China stops and arrests coronavirus suspects on the road The video is a mock drill video of a SWAT team in an unspecified location with aggressive steps taken to secure an uncooperative citizen, the kind that would create alarm in the eyes of a viewer.
10 Was A Case Of Novel Coronavirus Identified In Bihar? Doctor in Purnea district of east Bihar reported that he has not identified any patient positive with Coronavirus. This may have intended to impact the doctor’s practice, and to cause alarm in a region that at the time had no known cases.
 11 Chinese Policemen Kill Coronavirus Patients Chinese policemen are not killing patients. The videos here are maliciously combined to build a false narrative of the Chinese as cold towards the human condition in the pandemic.
12 Is Coronavirus a secret Chinese bio-warfare weapon? BBC reported that there was no accidental virus leakage from the Wuhan Center of Virology. This news intends to cause alarm and suggest malicious intent on China’s part to target its enemy states with bioweapons.
13 23 million quarantined; 2.8 million infected; 112.000 dead due to coronavirus The radio talk show gave alarmingly high numbers and had no relationship with the real numbers in China’s live-broadcast of Coronavirus Outbreak.
14 China is Producing Corned Beef With Human Body Parts The images are sourced from a Tibetan sky burial practice and a game pop-up show in London, and are unrelated to the Coronavirus. The graphic nature  of the images are used to create alarm, and further a negative narrative around Chinese people.
A girl infected by coronavirus found dead in Delhi apartment The video is of a girl found dead in Tamil Nadu prior to, and unrelated to the Coronavirus. Since the deceased woman was from Nagaland, her Eastern features are used to suggest she is Chinese and cause alarm about people with similar features.
16 Screenshots Claim China’s Coronavirus Deaths Over 24,000 The Chinese government is not misreporting numbers, this report by Chinese website Tencent does not correspond with other live-counts and hence it has been doctored.
Is China Blocking Roads To Contain Coronavirus? This is a 5-year old video from a car accident in Shandong Wudi in China and is unrelated to Coronavirus. The apparent source had a PhD attached to their name, to suggest the qualification of the author.
2 Cases of Coronavirus Confirmed in Kolkata? Kolkata Airport reported that these cases are not positive, only suspected, hence advised for check-up. The images are alarmist and have health workers in full-body suits in a location other than Kolkata, which has not seen this level of testing. 
Tripura man dies of Coronavirus in Malaysia The Tripura man’s family had wrongly claimed the death of their child. Malaysia’s Health Ministry tweeted reporting that no Indians have died due to Coronavirus in their country. The image of what appears to be a poor person outside a rural home with a thatched roof is for effect that Tripura is a poor and tribal state. 
Books predicted coronavirus The novels The Eyes of Darkness by Dean Koontz and End Of Days by Sylvia Browne talk about older variations of COVID, and tap into a larger narrative of apocalyptic literature, including the predictions of Nostradamus which traditionally find purchase among a subset of the population.
Agra Woman fled from Bangalore after Coronavirus test This case presents ways in which shoddy reporting from legitimate sources can be a problem. The individual never entered the Bangalore city, a fact-checker verified this through a direct follow-up with the individual.
Coronavirus Rumours Hit Mumbai Hotels Westin And Fatty Bao Management of the Westin hotel and Fatty Bao restaurant announced that they don’t have any positive cases of Coronavirus, the messages may have been mischief intended to hit the commercial operations of these establishments.
Video of Punjab dealing with COVID-19 patients This video is of a mock drill on COVID-19 preparedness In Punjab presented as a real scenario.
A worker of Prince hotel in Mehdipatnam has tested positive for Coronavirus. Prince hotel has announced that no worker of their hotel has been tested positive. This is another case of likely attack aimed at a commercial establishment.
Memorandum for declaration of holidays in state by Ministry of Health No fines have been levied for breach of order, and the relevant ministry released a report debunking the fake memorandum. The use of language in the fake circular is inexact for an official memorandum “advised that mass gathering may be avoided” (as opposed a specific recommendation) and vague signatory “Under Secretary for Government of India” hint that this is misinformation.
India will go into a lockdown until 15th of April This was confirmed to be fake by the PIB, the stylistic elements including an audio message and a link to the government for the person with purported knowledge of the facts are used to mislead recipients of this message.
Coronavirus: Government is distributing free masks under a new scheme This is a phishing website/URL that uses a legitimate sounding name based on an existing scheme. The non-use of CAPS for ‘Pm mask Yojna’ hints that the claim is spurious. Clicking on the link asks you to forward the message with fake guarantee of rewards. Culture

We find that messages that use cultural metaphor or associations intend to mislead readers by proposing that ethnic or cultural features of a certain group – ethnic, religious, or political relate to the incidence or spread of the disease. These messages typically attempt to enlist either enthusiastic purchase among members of a certain group, or negative feelings towards them. Often, these messages amplify pre-existing schisms.

  • Spaces: Messages that propose infections or spaces used by certain group – such as Mosques
  • Practices: Messages that propose the association of a group’s practice with disease characteristics
  • Politicization: Messages that suggest politicization of a group’s approach to dealing with the disease
Claim Fact Image
1 Chinese pres Xi Jinping visiting mosque amid coronavirus outbreak The video is taken from Xi Jinping’s tour in Northwest China which was 4 years ago. The use of religious metaphor is used widely across fake news, intended to create purchase among believers that faith can be an answer to the crisis.
2 Chinese PM praying in a mosque amid Coronavirus outbreak The video uses a man with East Asian features (ex-Malaysian PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) attending Friday prayers.
3 Video Of Wuhan Residents Mourning Doctor’s Death This is a video of people singing patriotic songs, and has been reused in multiple messages that relate to COVID-19.
Muslim Man Tortured In China amid coronavirus The video is of a pick-pocketer beaten up in Indonesia, presumably aiming to stir up sectarian feelings around officials’ treatment of persons caught in the crisis.
AAP distributes ‘Magic Blankets’ to the disabled These images are from a blanket distribution drive in Bijnor district by the NGO, Saksharta Sansthan.
China sets up new hospital for Coronavirus patients  This is a 2-year old video of a 57-storey skyscraper, hence not related to the novel Coronavirus. This uses the notion of Chinese efficiency and a command economy in engineering the necessary resources related to tackling COVID-19. 
Chinese reading Quran after ban lifted in view of coronavirus? This actually is an old video of people first time seeing the bible.
Xi Jinping visited Muslim Homes To Learn How To Fight Coronavirus The video is from Xi Jinping’s visit to Ningxia province during his poverty alleviation program.
Chinese PM said, ‘Quran is the only cure for COVID-19’ This image is neither quoted right nor of the Chinese PM. The image is of China president Xi Jinping. The use of faith here is presumably aimed at getting adherents enthusiastic about forwarding, which can gain platform popularity for those sharing.
Cow dung may help cure Coronavirus Images from Goraihabba festival show people bathing in cow dung due to its ‘sacred value’ in the Hindu culture. These images were released after a BJP leader stated that cow dung cures coronavirus. There is no scientific evidence for this claim, but has been a popular idea among those who believe in traditional Indian medicine.
Baba Ramdev is Infected With Coronavirus? This is an old image of Ramdev from his 9-day fast against corruption and black money. The use of a widely recognized figure adds potential for quick virality. Versions of this message also claimed that Baba Ramdev was hospitalized for drinking inordinate amounts of cow urine.
Public TV claims Muslim youths in Karnataka refuse coronavirus testing for “religious reasons” This information did not come with any verification, and presumably aim to create communal disharmony by targeting Muslims as a potential source of COVID-19 spread. 
13 Cristiano Ronaldo’s Hotels Will be Turned Into Hospitals For Coronavirus Patients The hotel chains and Portugal-based digital media sources have denied the claim. The use of a public figure Christiano Ronaldo is presumably to get quick virality for the message.
Eminem is down with coronavirus No media report found to support the claim and Enimen is healthy and active on social media. The message is mischievous and is likely to primarily be driven by gaining virality online.
15 Pope Francis is down with coronavirus The Pope has a common cold and not coronavirus. A message about the Pope is likely to go viral, but also underline that key figures of the world are likely to be afflicted by the virus. Cure

Cure-based messages have found significant traction following the onset of COVID-19 given the uncertainty that surrounds the condition. Cure-based messages typically present a physical action such as exercise, or remedy involving naturally available materials or commercially produced products that can be used to deal with COVID-19. Some characteristics seen in cure-related messages include:

  • Alternative medicines: Messages that present the existence of a cure in medicinal traditions outside of western medicine
  • Home remedies: Messages that present easily available products as home remedies  – including alcoholic or narcotic substances
  • Conspiracy: Messages that present conspiracy theories about existing western medicine


Claim Fact Image
1 Vivek Aghinotri shares that Cannabis (Weed) kills coronavirus  There is no scientific evidence to prove that cannabis kills coronavirus. This is a common stylistic element of replacing text under “breaking news” to suggest credibility.
PIB reports: AYUSH ministry’s claims that Unani practices can prevent coronavirus infection  There is no scientific evidence as research data to support AYUSH ministry’s claim.

While a common stylistic element of doctoring whitespace text under the handle of a credible source (PIB India here) with misleading text can be used for fake news, in this case, the office source did in fact spread misinformation.

Homeopathic drug ‘Arsenicum album 30’ prevents Coronavirus infection Arsenicum album 30 has never been tested or proven to reduce coronavirus infections or to prevent coronavirus infections. This message aims at getting purchase among a significant share of Indians who believe in Homeopathic remedies.
4 Did Dettol Know About Coronavirus Outbreak Beforehand? Dettol confirmed in a report that they have not tested effectiveness of their product on the new novel coronavirus. The older viruses in the coronavirus family were 99% effective.
Boiled Garlic Water For Treating Coronavirus? Boiled Garlic can prevent common cold, not coronavirus. The attractiveness of such messages arethe connection with ancient wisdom, the ease with which someone can implement it, and senders’ claims that it ‘cannot hurt’ to try.
6 Can Avoiding Ice Creams And Cold Drinks For 90 Days Prevent Coronavirus? The virus does not spread through the consumption of substances such as ice creams, cold drinks, and sweets which are commonly considered to cause colds in individuals.
7 Alcohol, weed cure coronavirus infection says Aaj Tak  Aaj-Tak’s fact-check video has been misreported with the opposite claim. There is no scientific evidence to prove Alcohol and weed as cures for Coronavirus, but a screenshot is used to present the claim as legitimate 
8 Only ‘Dry cough’ and not ‘Runny nose’ and ‘sputum production’  are symptoms of COVID-19 WHO reports that ‘Runny Nose’ and ‘Sputum production’ are symptoms of the novel coronavirus
9 Trump announced launch of coronavirus vaccine by Swiss drugmaker Roche Roche Diagnostics only developed a coronavirus test which is 10x times faster than other tests.
10 Vaccines For Coronavirus Have Been Developed by Israelis Israel’s MIGAL Research Institute said in a press release that it was still working to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. The Israeli state with its accompanying discourse in India for efficiency and directness in dealing with challenges is used as the source. There are clear hints of the message being fake, The image of a vial called “Coronavirus Vaccine” is a fairly good indicator of the news being fake for an informed observer, but can be attractive to others for its simple directness.  
Is There A Right Way To Wear A Surgical Mask? Wearing the colored side of the mask on the outside is the right way to wear a Surgical Mask, and typically medical professionals are aware of this.
12 ‘Keep your throat moist’ advisory message on Coronavirus by the Health Ministry. Fake advisory by the Ministry of Health India and there is no mention of keeping the throat moist in the original advisory. The trick used here to present authenticity is to send the post from AIIMS, so while the message was sent while the user was in the physical environs of the medical institute, they were not in fact representing AIIMS.
13 8-step Advisory from UNICEF to keep safe from Coronavirus UNICEF has not reported any advisory for Coronavirus.
14 Wearing a mask can prevent people from getting infected by COVID-19 since the virus is large in size with a diameter of 400-500 microns UNICEF does not release health advisories as it only caters to needs of children around the globe. But the use of an international agency presents legitimacy. Environment

Nature & the Environment
These messages are typically around the natural world around us. The majority of messages here tend to be speculations or known falsehoods about the animal sources of COVID-19. Some characteristics seen in cure-related messages include:

  • Animal causes: Messages that present the claims about animal origins of COVID-19. A subset of these also make cultural claims of vegetarian lifestyle superiority
Claim Fact Image
1 Coronavirus in broiler chicken? H5N1 avian flu is found in chickens not the novel coronavirus. Cooking the chicken eliminates any kind of viruses.
2 Pigs destroyed by Chinese government to prevent Coronavirus  Images of mass burning and burial of pigs is from the African Swine Fever outbreak in China last year.
3 Wuhan meat market is the origin of Coronavirus outbreak The image is from Langowan market in Indonesia which is famous for selling exotic meat.
Coronavirus started in American and Chinese labs that were studying bats in Nagaland Study on Bats by Wuhan Institute of Virology is not responsible for the coronavirus. The Hindu newspaper mistakenly linked the virus to the study.
5 Bat Infestation Video shared As Coronavirus Source Found This is a 9-year old video from Florida, USA and not linked to Coronavirus. Popular myths around bats found much purchase among people spreading misinformation related to COVID-19.
Coronavirus: High sulfur dioxide emissions show mass cremation in Wuhan Sulphur Dioxide levels have not increased in Wuhan and it is not an indicator of burning organic matter, confirms the World Resource Institute.
7 Places most affected by coronavirus are situated on latitude 40° Areas irrespective of latitude have been affected, there is no scientific logic for this claim.