Group admins on messaging and social media platforms will be “personally” held responsible for dissemination of misinformation and fake news related to COVID-19 and will be punishable under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, as per a prohibitory order issued by DCP Pranaya Ashok of Greater Mumbai on May 23. Admins are now responsible for reporting “malicious, incorrect or derogatory content” posted by a group member to the police immediately. It extends to areas under the control of Commissioner of Police, Greater Mumbai and came into effect at 12:15 am today and will remain in effect until June 8 midnight. This order has been issued under powers issued to an Executive Magistrate via Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code read with the Maharashtra Police Act, 1951.

Apart from misinformation and fake news, people are also forbidden from sharing derogatory and discriminatory messages that target a particular community, cause panic and confusion among general public, or incite “mistrust towards government functionaries and their actions taken in order to prevent spread of the COVID-19 virus and thereby cause danger to human health or safety or a disturbance of the public tranquility”. “If somebody puts something which is contradicting, and which is a misrepresentation of our efforts, the government body efforts, then you will be taken to task. Or if we are taking some action and he misrepresents it, or he you know tries to provide some information which is not correct and makes it seem like the government is doing nothing, which is not based on facts, then obviously, we will take action on that,” Ashok told MediaNama.

To assess “incorrect information”, admins can use fact-checking websites, Ashok said. “If there is something which creates any confusion in the city and among people” and is reported, the police will investigate and then take action, he said. “If he [the group admin] is fact checking and he reports it or he deletes it, then it obviously supports his cause and we will not take action against him,” Ashok told us.

“Media reports, if they are found false, will obviously become a part of this. If they are found false. As we have already taken action in one case where the reporter had reported that there are trains being run. It led to a lot of confusion among the public. It was also a misrepresentation of the government’s actions being taken to control the epidemic. So, that was a case in which we took action under this order,” Ashok said.

On the issue of jurisdiction, Ashok clarified that even if the admin is not located in Greater Mumbai, or the user who posts misinformation is not located in Great Mumbai, the offence can still be registered. This means that the Mumbai Police can arrest a person from any part of the country if the misinformation causes unrest in Mumbai.

Earlier in April, the Office of Special Inspector General of Police, Maharashtra Cyber released an advisory for WhatsApp users and admins during the pandemic. Unlike this order from the Mumbai Police, that was an advisory as Maharashtra Cyber does not have the powers to issue such orders. “So individual units have to take out their own orders” if they want, Ashok said.