The Ministry of Finance issued an appeal to citizens to not circulate “wrong messages” on social media: it appears that messages were circulating falsely suggesting that temples are subject to Goods and Services Tax (GST), while Churches and Mosques are exempt.

Appeal to people not to start circulating wrong messages on social media as no distinction is made in the GST Law on any provision based on religion.

There are some messages going around in the social media stating that the temple trusts have to pay the GST while the churches and mosques are exempt. This is completely untrue because no distinction is made in the GST Law on any provision based on religion.

We request to people not to start circulating such wrong messages on social media.

Revenue Secretary Dr Hasmukh Adhia also took to Twitter to point out users won’t be charged GST twice if they pay for utility bills using credit cards, saying “A wrong message is doing rounds on social media that if u make payment of utility bills by credit cards, you will be paying GST twice. This is completely untrue. Please do not recirculate such message without checking it with authority.” (source: this and this)

MediaNama’s take

1. Those in power need to behave more responsibly: This appears to have taken some time to gather momentum, but perhaps it would have helped if a Member of Parliament hadn’t posted a statement.

Such a statement gives the MP plausible deniability, but it also can lead to others misinterpreting this, and spreading misinformation: what someone asks as a question can start spreading as fact. At the very least, this is just Chinese Whispers. At its worst, this is a campaign to discredit a project or a government.

2. Can counter-speech even work? Honestly, it’s becoming difficult now to separate fact from fiction, and what the government has done here is counter-speech: dealing with fake information with credible information.

Challenges with counter speech are two: Firstly, one of awareness. With end-to-end encryption on Whatsapp, it’s impossible to know where a piece of fake news began, or that it is even spreading. To cite Mark Twain, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” By the time you’re probably aware of it, it’s too late. Second is the issue of reach: you’ll probably never be able to reach as many people with a response as the number of people who have received this false information. In fact, you probably won’t know where to begin.

That said, what the Ministry of Finance did is correct: there needs to be at least some correction; a network needs to be built, so that people can ensure that the government is aware of misinformation that is spreading.

3. Can the media help? Nasr ul Hadi, ICFJ​ ​Knight​ ​Fellow, at our #NAMAfakenews event, pointed towards the math: “For a major Hindi Newspaper on any one single day, there are about 5000 stories in the pipeline, at various stages of evolution, being reported, being changed and may not be published. Of those 5000, only around 500 make it online because the online team has limited bandwidth: the web team staff is lower, they don’t have the technology for it to automatically end up online. Of those 500 stories only around 50 end up going through the social platform because the social team bandwidth or the distribution bandwidth of the organisation is much more limited. This is the bandwidth of a truth telling organisation. Compare that with the bandwidth of a falsity spreading organisation: the technologies they’re able to use, the number of people in their digital call centre, how many people, what kind of technology, and they’re spreading stuff which speaks much more directly to human emotion. Publishers, no matter how sophisticated, will not be able to counter directly the snowball that is rolling towards them, which is why, there will not be a single solution, there will be a portfolio of solutions speaking to multiple sources of misinformation.”

If this is an issue that interests you, do watch the videos from our Fake News event: