Tablighi Jamaat: Impact of media narratives

Soundarya Iyer/Shoibal Chakravarty | Updated on August 07, 2020

The case’s reportage shows how media coverage and public appeal reinforce each other. This plays a role in spread of fake news

By the end of March, the news of the first major cluster of Covid-19 cases in India had broken out. Much has already been written about the Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Nizamuddin Markaz, New Delhi, that took place in mid-March. Yet, little is known about the actual volume of reporting and its influence on public interest on the issue. The Tablighi Jamaat case is a powerful example of how news and public interest reinforce each other in the era of instant communication via the Internet.

We analysed the media reportage from March 20 to April 27, using open source media analysis platform Media Cloud, created by the MIT Center for Civic Media and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Media Cloud searches for topics and search terms in news stories on online media websites, and aggregates and processes these into a database for quantitative analysis of content and metadata.

The five-week period was chosen based on the volume of reporting on the Tablighi Jamaat. At 8 pm on March 19, the Prime Minister announced the janata curfew. This event marked the first acknowledgement of the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic and the government’s resolve to address it. Media Cloud’s topic mapper tool was used to collate the news reporting on English and regional language media platforms. The database has significantly better coverage of English language websites. There were 11,074 stories published from 271 media sources with the term ‘Tablighi Jamaat’ during the period, of which 94 per cent were English stories that appeared in the print media.

Media Cloud analysis revealed the predominance of print media over audio and video. This is very likely an artefact of Media Cloud’s search algorithms and the fact that a small share of TV news channels’ content is available and searchable online. While this analysis is a fairly accurate description of English media published during this period, the actual volume of coverage will likely be several times higher if language sources are documented.

Search patterns

At its peak, on April 2, Media Cloud tracked as many as 1,451 news articles covering the Tablighi Jamaat case. The top media source was Times of India, with 1,863 stories in the five-week period, which were shared on Facebook 3,19,874 times. Although other media sources got more shares per story, by sheer volume, Times of India dominated Facebook.

A more direct way of measuring public interest in a topic is the volume of web searches on it. We used Google Trends to analyse the volume of web searches for the topic ‘Tablighi Jamaat’ for the same period. Web searches on Google in India for Tablighi Jamaat closely mirrored the explosion of news stories with the same term, as shown in the Chart (Here, Interest over time represent(s) search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. 100 = peak popularity; 0 = not enough data). It is safe to say that media coverage and public interest (as revealed by web searches) mutually reinforce each other, that is, while it is obvious that public interest in topics follow coverage in news media, it is equally likely that the volume and frequency of media stories follow public interest as well.


Fake content

The Tablighi Jamaat incident provided an opportunity to some to generate fake content on social media connecting Muslims with Covid-19. Some news media platforms played an insidious role by covering this content. Media Cloud analysis of news stories around Tablighi Jamaat revealed the kind of words used to create these narratives.

A statistically large sample of sentences from the articles containing the words ‘Tablighi’ or ‘Jamaat’ were collated to look at frequently occurring words. The most frequently appearing words were descriptive terms such as ‘Tablighi’, ‘Jamaat’, ‘coronavirus’, ‘Delhi’, and ‘lockdown’. But 1.5-10 per cent of the stories had words with negative connotations such as ‘violating’, ‘crime’, ‘spitting’, ‘terrorist’, and ‘jihad’. These stories fed into an epidemic of Islamophobic fake news and hate speech. Fact-checking websites such as Media Scanner have debunked over a hundred instances of Islamophobic misinformation during this period.

A fast-paced media ecosystem that privileges velocity of news and viewer engagement is likely to be exploited for the production of misinformation and hate speech. This is especially aggravated by the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty during a pandemic. The age of virality that we live in demands a much higher responsibility by news agencies, viewers, and readers .

Iyer is affiliated researcher at French Institute of Pondicherry. Chakravarty is at the Divecha Centre for Climate Change, IISc. Views are personal

Published on August 07, 2020

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