2016: Top 10 fake news forwards that we (almost) believed

From currency to salt-very little escaped the reach of fake or fabricated news in 2016. Rumours spread from WhatsApp and other social media into the mainstream media. Institutions such as Unesco and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had to step in and tell us what was true. Even Facebook and Google, two of the worlds biggest internet companies, sat up and took notice.

Such news can have widespread reach: India is one of the biggest markets for several social media and communication companies-it has 160 million of WhatsApp’s one billion-plus monthly active users, 148 million Facebook users, and over 22 million Twitter accounts.

The potency of fabricated news came into focus after the 2016 US presidential elections. In the run-up to the ballot, fake news on the elections drew more engagement on Facebook than top-performing stories from major news outlets such as The New York Times, CNN, NBC News, or The Wall Street Journal, this BuzzFeed News analysis found. Other countries witnessed the rise of fake news too, according to this Guardian report, rendering it a global phenomenon in 2016.

Here are some of the most popular Indian fake news stories of 2016:

1. Unesco declares PM Modi best Prime Minister

Unesco has been one of the primary alleged sources of fake news in India. In June 2016, fake news broke out on WhatsApp groups, and other social media, that the UN cultural agency had awarded Prime Minister Narendra Modi the title of best prime minister in the world.

That rumour is still circulating on social media.

2. Unesco declares “Jana Gana Mana” best national anthem

Another favourite Indian rumour involving Unexco is the claim that India’s national anthem — “Jana Gana Mana” — has been declared the “Best National Anthem In The World”. The fake news started in 2008 through email and then caught the UN agency’s attention. “We are aware of several blogs in India reporting this story, but can assure you that Unesco has made no such announcement concerning the anthem of India or any country,” an official told India Today in 2008.

Circulation of the rumour peaked around India’s Independence Day in 2016.

3. Unesco declares new Rs 2,000 note best currency in the world

Another fake Unesco certificate for India touched upon the notebandi crisis, as messages claimed the organisation had certified the new Rs 2,000 note as the “best currency in the world”. The message, shared widely on WhatsApp, claimed “Dr Saurabh Mukherjee, head of cultural awareness department of Unesco announced this to media”.

This confusion led shopkeepers, kiosk-owners, auto-rickshaw drivers and vendors to refuse the coins, according to a Hindustan Times report from September 2016.

The RBI stepped in and clarified that the coins were indeed legal tender and those refusing to accept the currency could face legal action.

8. Jayalalithaa’s ‘secret daughter’ and heir lives in the US

Soon after the death of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, fake news and photos of a secret daughter went viral on WhatsApp and social media. The message alleged that the woman in the photograph was Jayalalithaa’s daughter, who lived somewhere in the US in anonymity.

As it turns out, the woman in the photograph was not connected to Jayalalithaa and lived in Australia, according to popular singer and TV show host Chinmayi Sripada, who took to Facebook to dispel the rumours.

9. Salt shortage in India

WhatsApp messages of a salt shortage (despite a 7,517 km coastline) in November 2016 triggered panic buying at markets past midnight, and caused a four-fold price-rise in some parts of the country. Western Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra and Hyderabad were particularly affected by this bit of fake news, said news reports. The subsequent chaos to stock up on the essential commodity led to the death of a woman in Kanpur, while police baton-charged crowds and stopped mobs from looting grocery shops, according to an India Today report.

The government issued a clarification denying any shortage of the commodity.

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