It happened a few days ago. My family doctor tested positive for coronavirus. He was admitted to a hospital, and treatment began as usual.

A few days later, a message surfaced, claiming he was no more. I believed what I heard until a trustworthy source confirmed that the doctor was doing fine. The rumour died a quick death.

Somewhere else, a media house reported quoting sources that megastar Amitabh Bachchan had tested negative for coronavirus. Bachchan, who has been keeping track of news during his stay in Mumbai’s Nanavati Hospital after testing positive, issued a denial in firm words. His tweet read: .. this news is incorrect, irresponsible, fake and an incorrigible LIE…

Rumours travel at the speed of light in modern times. A genuinely naive person might hear some half-baked news and put it out on WhatsApp without bothering to clarify its authenticity. Those who receive it can assume it is true and forward it to their peers and friends. Thus, myth turns into truth in no time.

The number of mischief-makers out to spread misinformation on social media is far higher, of course, presenting the establishment with an unmanageable problem that can be controlled only after the damage has been done.

We all know what happened after rumours were widely circulated in India that not having meat could prevent a person from falling sick because of the novel coronavirus. Because of this lie shared on many social media posts, meat sales took a hit across the country. There were stories of how meat sellers were giving away chicken for free, a tragedy at a time when precautionary savings had led to the curtailment of expenditure in the society anyway.

It was only recently that Arunachal Pradesh’s West Siang’s deputy commissioner Moki Loyi sent out an essential message to the people of the district.

He requested everybody to avoid circulating fake news with a COVID-19 connection on social media platforms.

“One should stay away from circulating fake messages and unfounded rumours related to coronavirus as it only causes panic among the innocent people,” he said.

It is a well-phrased message, and people not only in West Siang but elsewhere too must follow it. The big problem is that mischief-makers cannot sit still. Many of them inhabit the social media where rumour-mongering is rampant.

The power of social media makes them powerful, which means that a mischievous post from just about anybody that catches people’s eyes can create utter chaos.

One such rumour resulted in a police complaint by the former Tripura finance minister Bhanu Lal Saha, who said that some miscreants on social media were alleging that he was COVID-19 positive.

What had actually happened was one of Saha’s attendants had tested positive. That was quickly turned into a story about the former minister’s illness due to the dreaded virus.

Far away in Patiala, SSP Patiala Mandeep Singh Sidhu said that some unknown people operating with a Facebook address called Ronak Estates were issuing provocative statements against healthcare officials and the administration. That was having a grave impact on the functioning of those working in a containment zone. Just how serious is this?

Why are some people indulging in rumour-mongering in such stressful times? Most of them wish to keep themselves entertained and also want to test the reach of their misinformation.

There are those who want to see their demigod Amitabh Bachchan fit and fine soon. Whatever the case might be, there is a time and place for everything. Spreading rumours is indefensible, no matter when.

Biswadeep Ghosh

Biswadeep Ghosh is an author and freelance journalist. He has been a part of the India media for three decades. Among his books is MSD: The Man The Leader, the bestselling biography of cricketer MS Dhoni....