Disinformation

Infodemic: Indian textbook wars and Orban’s attacks on Hungary’s press

Welcome to the Infodemic. We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown. Today, from Sicily to India, Coda’s Gautama Mehta presents a few narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

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Thousands of Hungarians marched for press freedom in Budapest over the weekend, after the most widely read national news site suffered another blow to its independence. The gathering took place following the resignation of three-quarters of Index.hu’s reporters on Friday in protest against the firing of editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull. They referred to his dismissal as “clear interference” from the government. This marks a near complete takeover of the nation’s media by Viktor Orban’s administration, which has used the coronavirus pandemic to further restrict independent voices. Index.hu’s reporting has regularly informed this newsletter. This latest chapter in its story represents a great loss for journalism in Central Europe.

Police on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa issued a statement Saturday, saying that 25 migrants had tested positive for Covid-19. But Mayor Toto Martello immediately refuted the claim as “fake news” and “media terrorism.” The people in question were given a second round of tests, which all came back negative.

A false claim that infrared thermometers pose health risks has been circulating on French social media. Posts supposedly quoting a warning by an unnamed Australian nurse that the contactless devices could damage the pineal gland were shared more than 5,800 times on Facebook, according to AFP. But medical experts assure that the thermometers, which have been widely used during the pandemic, do not expose people to infrared radiation. In fact, they measure infrared light emitted by the human body itself and display a temperature based on those readings.

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REVISING HISTORY IN INDIA’S CLASSROOMS

Covid-19 and the government’s lockdowns have thrown India’s education system into crisis. Many students are unable to access the internet and other resources necessary for online learning, and even those who can have found it difficult to complete the normal amount of classwork required per year.

To mitigate these problems, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) announced last month that it was revising school syllabuses to reduce student workloads.

But when the amended curriculums were announced, critics of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party noticed a pattern in the areas of study chosen for removal.

Chapters focusing on federalism, citizenship, nationalism and secularism were cut from new Class 11 political science textbooks. According to independent news site Scroll, the Class 10 version of the same course lost sections on diversity, gender, caste and popular struggles. 

Pradyumna Jairam, a researcher at King’s College London who specializes in Indian history textbooks, told me the move was designed “to spread the ideology of the day, or if not to spread, then to dilute certain ideas, such as federalism and secularism.”

Jairam added that the revisions were particularly dangerous in India’s memorization-heavy education system, because “if you remove this from the end-of-term examinations, it goes a long way in terms of what students will remember.”

The changes prompted more than 500 Indian academics — including the noted historian Romila Thapar — to file a petition asking the CBSE to restore the deleted chapters.

In an opinion piece for Scroll, journalist Ipsita Chakravarty described the revisions as “an ode to the Bharatiya Janata Party.”

Chakravarty argued that the changes conformed to a longstanding pattern of revisionist history promoted by the Hindu right and disseminated through modifications of curriculums and textbooks, particularly since Modi’s 2014 election.

Previous incidences have included the deletion of chapters in Class 9 textbooks focusing on resistance to caste oppression.

“It’s a slow process, wherein you first remove the controversial aspects of history, which you don’t want students to learn, and slowly you bring in your own inputs into what Indian history is,” said Jairam.

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Hungry for more? I recommend this piece on how a disinformation campaign in Myanmar tried to win public support for a telecoms company backed by the armed forces.

It takes a village or, in our case, a team to put this newsletter together. Coda Story’s Sasha Tyan and Katia Patin contributed to this one. 

Thanks for reading. And we’ll see you on Monday,

Gautama Mehta
Reporting Fellow, Coda Story

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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Gautama Mehta

Gautama Mehta is a reporting fellow at Coda Story.