India - Fake News

Misinformation dominates India’s social media landscape in Covid surge

Denis Charlet AFP/File

Uncertainty and mass anxiety in India have fanned the spread of misinformation over the coronavirus, according to analysts, as fake news about vaccines and the origins of the country's devastating second wave has flooded social networks. 

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The wave of misinformation on social media comes as India's beleaguered health infrastructure tries to cope.                            

“We have seen a lot of misleading content about vaccines in the form of images, videos and text which goes unnoticed,” Syed Nazakat, founder of Health Analytics Asia, a fact-checking initiative, told RFI.

Several fact checkers and outfits say there has been no proper action from authorities to stop the spread of misinformation -- and that some public figures were even responsible for the propaganda.

Susceptible population

In mid-April, when the Covid crisis was on the verge of explosion, V K Paul, a senior government official at the forefront of India’s Covid response, recommended that people take to alternate therapy if they have mild or asymptomatic Covid-19 and consume a dietary supplement and a brew of herbs and spices to boost immunity.

“When you have public authorities endorse such appeals, there is obviously a lack of respect for science. What effect do you think those consuming social media will have?” Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a watchdog body, told RFI.

During the national lockdown last year, social media use in India increased by an unprecedented 65 to 75 percent, say watchdog analysts.

Most of the misinformation in India is on the instant messaging application WhatsApp, which has more than 500 million users in the country. 

“It suggests that the increasing reach of social media further intensifies the misinformation crisis,” added Gupta.

The extent of the dominance of fake news was evidenced recently when some news websites reported that a countrywide lockdown was to be imposed to contain the pandemic.

The government had to clear the confusion after viral posts on social media claiming a complete lockdown in India from 3 May to 20 May.

Myths

Some of the myths that have been debunked in the current surge include how nebulisers can be used as a replacement for oxygen tanks that are currently under severe shortage in the country.

Rumours promoting the inhalation of steam as a preventative measure for Covid were widely promoted during the outbreak in 2020. These rumours resurfaced during the second-wave surge. 

That women should not take the Covid-19 vaccination was another piece of misinformation that was quick to gain traction on social media and dominated online searches.

The reasons advanced were that women faced low immunity during their menstruation, and could, therefore reduce their ability to build antibodies post-vaccination.

“The myth was fact-checked by our network of doctors, who clarified that there is no link between menstruation and vaccinations,” said Nazakat.

The safety of the Covid-19 vaccine for those with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes or hypertension has also been an avenue for misinformation, despite several clarifications issued by health authorities that the vaccine is safe for these populations.

A recent Facebook post that made the claim cited an incident in the southern state of Karnataka that involved the death of a public health officer from cardiac arrest after being vaccinated.

In India, a lot of misleading content about vaccines in the form of images, videos and text goes unnoticed because the content is often in local languages.  

Even the origins of the second surge engulfing the country has been peddled as a “planned biological war” by the big pharmaceutical companies to reap profits from selling vaccines and other medical equipment.

Some posts argued that the current surge is a “planned conspiracy” to defame Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was able to keep a check on infections and fatalities in the first wave.

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