Indian media is awash with articles on how Pakistan cricket captain Babar Azam was allegedly “sexting” another player’s girlfriend. The problem: it’s false news that originated in a “joke” tweet from a parody account.
Illustrating how misinformation can morph into accepted reality and explode online, as well as the bitter enmity between India and Pakistan, media failed to notice - or chose to overlook - that the Twitter account was not meant to be taken seriously.
The person behind the parody account, who remains anonymous, apologised on Twitter to Azam - who has remained silent throughout - and attacked what he called India’s “clown media”.
The original tweet - which has since been deleted - by the “Dr. Nimo Yadav” account on 15 January said that Azam had been “sexting with gf (girlfriend) of another Pakistan cricketer”.
Not only that, but the player was “promising her that her bf (boyfriend) won’t be out of team if she keeps sexting with him... I hope Allah is watching all this”, the account tweeted to its more than 27,000 followers.
The tweet carried a purported screenshot of Azam superimposed with a heart, and a video of a topless man in bed resembling the star cricketer. The Twitter account holder said he took the image and video from a since-deactivated Instagram account.
The Twitter handle is marked “Parody account”, but that did not stop the tweet from being viewed almost 850,000 times and being sprayed across media in India - Pakistan’s arch-rival on the cricket field and off - and elsewhere.
Even after the holder of the Twitter account highlighted again that the tweet was fake when he deleted it the next day, stories carrying the false claim were still available on at least eight Indian news websites on Wednesday.
One international sports website - which even cited the “verified Twitter account Dr Nimo Yadav” - took down its article after the Pakistan Cricket Board tweeted its displeasure at its “media partner” for reporting on the “unsubstantiated personal allegations”.
Internet users expressed solidarity with Azam, with #WeStandWithBabar and #StayStrongBabarAzam trending on Twitter.
Blue tick ‘verification’
The parody account’s Twitter profile had a blue checkmark, with a message explaining that the account was “verified” because its owner had paid for the new Twitter Blue subscription introduced by the site’s owner, Elon Musk.
According to Twitter’s eligibility rules, to obtain the blue checkmark the account “must have no signs of being deceptive or misleading”.
“My followers know my tweets and they knew that it was not in bad taste, and it was a joke/satire,” the parody account’s owner told AFP.
“I am getting a lot of abuse in DMs (direct messages) for me and my family. I will be careful in the future, but I don’t think I need to give a disclaimer on my tweets.”
Internet usage and mobile phone ownership have exploded among India’s 1.4-billion population in recent years, and so has disinformation.
False information can spread like wildfire - with sometimes deadly consequences.
In 2018 and 2019 there was a spate of lynchings by mobs inspired by fake rumours of child kidnappings that circulated on WhatsApp.
India has the largest number of certified fact-checking organisations in the world, according to the International Fact-Checking Network, but they can only chip away at the mountain of fake news generated every day.
The Hindu nationalist ruling party of prime minister Narendra Modi has been accused not only of failing to fight misinformation, but also of spreading it itself.
Indian TV and online news outlets are “in a hurry” to broadcast or publish “viral or sensational stories especially when they are related to Pakistan, which results in fake news dissemination through their platform”, said Nadim Akhter, a researcher on misinformation at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication.
“Unfortunately, most of them are not following the basic code of conduct of the newsroom, which is fact verification.”