On June 7, reported how the budget airline GoAir had terminated an employee after a Twitter campaign wrongly targeted him for abusing Hindu deities.
Asif Iqbal Khan, a trainee pilot, was fired on June 4, not long after #ArrestAsifKhan and #boycottGoAir started trending on Twitter. Reason for these hashtags? A now deleted Twitter handle called made obscene remarks about the Hindu goddess Sita. In the handle’s bio, Asif Khan was presented as a cabin crew member with GoAir.
Enter Buzzing Trends, a YouTube channel which puts out videos about news that is trending on social media. They uploaded a video, since deleted, about #boycottGoAir. In it, they used pictures from the Facebook and Instagram pages of , a trainee first officer with GoAir, alleging that he was the person who had tweeted objectionable remarks against "Hindu religion, Hindu deities Ram and Sita” and spoken “in favour of Ravana", the villain of the Ramayana.
“It’s proven that the person who has made objectionable comments on Twitter is the same Asif Khan and he works with GoAir, his profiles on Twitter and Facebook are real and not fake,” Buzzing Trends declared.
But as Alt News detailed, it could be easily ascertained that Asif Iqbal Khan was not the person who had made the remarks. Buzzing Trends either didn’t check the facts or deliberately peddled lies. GoAir didn’t do much better, firing Asif Khan almost instantaneously.
“Even a basic investigation would have thrown up enough reasons for GoAir to institute a longer investigation and not terminate the employment of their pilot in a matter of seven hours,” Alt News concluded. “The account with offensive tweets shows all traits of an imposter account created to make money by trending hashtags.”
It was only after Asif Khan lodged a complaint with the Mumbai police about the “impersonator” that GoAir revoked his termination and put him on suspension pending an investigation.
A senior official at Maharashtra Cyber, the nodal agency for cyber security, confirmed that Asif Iqbal Khan was “a victim of mistaken identity”. “He would have lost his job. That is why we intervened and asked the Sakinaka police station to register an FIR. Had an FIR not been registered, GoAir would have thrown him out of his job," said the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorised to speak to the press.
“It was after that video of Buzzing Trends was released that I started getting trolled. Obscene comments were made against me and my family. And rape threats were made,” Asif Khan told Newslaundry. “By the time the video was removed, the damage was done. I didn't do anything but I was targeted. Nobody cared to verify the facts. Videos were made and I was asked to resign."
Buzzing Trends is run by . Newslaundry repeatedly tried contacting him for comment and finally managed to talk to him. On June 7, however, Buzzing Trends put out a video offering an apology for peddling fake news about Asif Khan.
Several news outlets regurgitated and amplified the allegations of Buzzing Trends, labelling Asif Khan the culprit without verifying facts independently. They included the , , , , , , , and . None of them cared to report Asif Khan’s statements nor did they issue a clarification after it became obvious that he had been wrongly targeted. The Hindu and Money Control, though, carried separate reports about GoAir revoking the termination after the FIR was registered.
Newslaundry asked Satish why they had declared Asif Khan the culprit without any evidence. “Buzzing Trends provides you updates on news trending on social media. On the morning of June 3, I saw boycott GoAir trending on Twitter. I searched more about it. Although I couldn't find much in videos, a screenshot of that tweet against Sita mata was doing the rounds. And I found that many people had shared screenshots of the Facebook profile of trainee first officer Asif Khan. The common thing I found between his Facebook profile and that of the Twitter handle @MdAsif35534489 was GoAir. Two of my colleagues were with me. Because of GoAir we thought he was the same person. We thought the updates on Facebook and Twitter related to his profession were not correct and picked up his identity for our video. The other reason was the screenshots from his Facebook profile that were doing the rounds. We got confused because of GoAir.”
But Asif Khan’s pictures show that he doesn’t resemble the person whose display picture was on the offending Twitter handle? “I made a big mistake and apologised for it. I will never repeat this mistake ever in my life. My intention was not to spread rumors against him,” he replied. “I will never again post a video until I verify it. I removed the video immediately when I got messages in the comments section that I had posted pictures of the wrong person."
Asked why they had fired Asif Khan without an inquiry, Asif Choudhary, general manager, human resources, at GoAir, said, “I can’t comment on the issue. I am not the right person to answer this question.”
Bakul Gala, vice president, corporate communication and public relations, said, “When we see somebody wearing a GoAir uniform, claiming to be an employee of GoAir, and making blasphemous tweets then we have a social media policy for that. By virtue of that policy, whether he is this Asif Khan or that Asif Khan, right now we just know there is an Asif Khan and if at all that person is an employee he has committed a violation.”
He added, “We checked the records of 6,700 employees to find out whether Asif Khan was our employee. When we confirmed he was our employee, our HR department called him twice or thrice and asked questions about his Twitter account. When we asked him how his photo came on YouTube and Twitter, he was unable to give satisfactory answers. He claimed some impersonator had done that. That's what he told the police too which is fair and needs to be looked into. The decision to temporarily suspend him was made on the basis of HR investigation and that’s how every corporate works when investigation is pending. Now the matter is with the police and they will decide on giving him a clean chit or not. Once he is absolved, he will be back in his job.”
Why did they suspend Asif Khan even after it became clear that he had been wrongly targeted? “We are not an investigation agency,” Gala replied. “There’s an Asif Khan in the company, he was a junior and undergoing training, so things matched up. As far as we are concerned, we have done our investigation. You can write whatever you want. HR and the legal department have gone ahead as per the policy and that's why we have taken this action.”
Gala claimed his company had never said it was firing Asif Khan. That’s not true. GoAir tweeted about terminating the trainee pilot’s contract “with immediate effect” on June 4.
The Mumbai police said they have filed an FIR against “the unknown impostor” and started an investigation. “Hopefully, we will soon find the culprit behind those objectionable tweets,” said Kishore Sawant, senior inspector at the Sakinaka police station.
UPDATE: This story incorrectly mentioned that Satish Suthar worked for Health XP in Mumbai. He resigned from the company in April. The error is regretted.
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