WhatsApp users and group admins who share fake information about COVID-19 will now be booked under the Indian Penal Code, the Maharashtra Police announced in its “Advisory for WhatsApp Users and Admins during the Covid-19 Pandemic” which will affect all instant messaging platforms. The advisory has been released by the Office of Special Inspector General of Police, Maharashtra Cyber, and was tweeted by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s special Twitter account @COVIDNewsbyMIB.

The advisory says that it is “advisable that if the group is uncontrollable”, group settings should be changed so that only admins can post. If, despite this setting, messages that are “fake, insulting any religion, spreading hatred, bigotry messages which may create communal tensions” are sent on the group, the admins/group owners “would be solely held liable”, the advisory warns.

Group admins have to ensure that “every group member is reliable and responsible enough to share only verified news”. How a WhatsApp admin can carry out that kind of due diligence remains to be seen. Group admins are also supposed to check the source and veracity of every message before posting it on the group. They should also inform all group members about the rules of posting in the group. Does that mean that every time a new member is added to the group, who doesn’t have access to older messages, the rules must be posted again? Group admins are also supposed to “actively and regularly monitor” content on the group and “warn” and “prevent” members from sharing objectionable content.

General users are not supposed to post “fake news, hate speech or misinformation in groups” or “further forwards or circulate any such news” that they may get from other members. They are further supposed to delete any post that they find objectionable, or has been notified as objectionable by the admin. Group admins are expected to inform the police “if any members resort to mischief and share objectionable content”. Messages with fake news, misinformation or hate speech must be reported to the group admin, and should either be reported to www.cybercrime.gov.in, or to nearest police station.

Misinformation on COVID-19 has turned into a bane for authorities while dealing with the pandemic. Most recently, fake news that Muslims are actively working to spread the virus in India was abound on WhatsApp and Facebook. Another claims that hot water and lemons kill the coronavirus.

WhatsApp itself had earlier restricted forwards to only one chat/person at a time to reduce velocity of the spread of messages on its end-to-end encrypted messaging platform.

Given WhatsApp’s reach and spread in communities, the Centre and different state governments, too, have launched their chatbots to run fact checks, and give correct information about the infection.