With breakthroughs in vaccines, many countries including India are gearing up for vaccination drives against COVID-19. While logistics and supply chain remain some of the biggest challenges for mass immunisation for a scale that the world has never administered, the less debated yet most potent hurdle to vaccination is misinformation. Even before the vaccination process began in the United States and United Kingdom, social media platforms in these countries were already busy in peddling all kinds of misinformation related to its possible side-effects and likely ineffectiveness against the disease. Pushing this trend are corona skeptics, groups opposed to lockdowns and mask wearing, and leading politicians who continue to mislead the public on the efficacy of vaccines. The latest in the fray is Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro whose mischievous and rather careless comments on the Pfizer vaccine include, “it will make people to become crocodiles”. This has attracted unprecedented attention in ever busy social media channels. Given vaccine hesitancy is a major challenge, misinformation on its likely efficacies and side-effects can potentially derail the ambitious mass immunisation drives. The evidence for such a likelihood comes from a deluge of COVID-19 misinformation which created multiple barriers to fight a fast-spreading pandemic.
The fake news around its origin, nature and extent of its spread and kind of threats it posed overwhelmed almost every nation, big or small. For instance, a major study carried out by Vaccine Confidence Project (VCP) found a staggering 240 million messages on COVID-19 in March itself and most of these messages were fake news and motivated ones with clear intention to mislead the general public. This alarmed countries and made them issue immediate clarifications and warnings to social media channels.
However, no country has suffered so much because of misinformation related to the pandemic than India. As soon as the first infection was registered in January, a torrent of fake news from its origin and spread to its cure have flooded every major means of communications, posing an additional challenge for governments already hard pressed to contain the global pandemic. Compared to many countries that are besieged with pandemic-related misinformation, the crisis is far more severe in the case of India. This is largely because of the country’s growing religious and political polarisation and absent regulation of social media channels that populate fake news. It is noteworthy to mention that with more than 400 million active users of social media channels, particularly Facebook and Twitter, and twice this numbers having access to internet and digital media, India is on the radars of most big tech and social media companies. However, compared to many countries, Indians are more susceptible to fall prey to fake news and misinformation.
To illustrate how misinformation created multiple hurdles to India’s tough fight against the pandemic, take a glance at some of the major incidents in the last 10 months. When India registered its first COVID-19 case in January, the country’s social media circle witnessed a record surge in fake news of all kinds: Doctored videos, fake interviews and dubious documentaries covering many aspects of a surging pandemic. A prominent fake message that drew a lot of attention was how Vitamin C could curb infections. To make it appear more credible, a number of fake videos were found being ascribed to popular doctor Devi Shetty.
Similarly, a flood of fake news, particularly sensational videos advocating a miracle cure by Gaumutra (cow urine), began populating nearly all prominent social medial channels. Such dangerous misinformation prompted the country’s top medical body ICMR (Indian Council for Medical Research) to issue appeals to people not to self-administer medicine. Not only this, authorities had to issue a series of complaints and notifications to print and social media platforms to curb fake April Fools’ jokes on COVID-19. These warnings didn’t have any positive effect as in April, a number of doctored videos were found on the likely imposition of emergency law by the government and takeover by military.
Far worse was the misinformation on non-vegetarian food, particularly regarding the eating of chicken and eggs spreading the infection. This dangerously motivated fake news was easily believed by many people causing major harm to the poultry industry. This episode led poultry farmers to cull millions of birds and in some cases setting them free. According to one estimate, poultry farmers had to incur a loss to the tune of Rs 2,000 crore.
However, the most debilitating COVID-19 misinformation was the Tablighi Jamaat incident in March. The controversial Tablighi Jamaat Islamic seminary congregation held in Delhi, which led to major uptick in COVID-19 infections in the country, prompted many individuals and groups to populate social media, particularly WhatsApp groups, with doctored videos and fake messages depicting the group as a vector for the virus. Similarly, numerous videos and fake messages found their way to social media channels, which showed Tablighis in quarantine centres spitting on doctors and nurses with the intention of spreading the disease. This led to many social media platforms and even politicians and popular bloggers to run Twitter hashtags “CoronaJihad”, “CoronaVillains” that vilified an entire community for the fault of a few. Much worse, a number of fake videos began circulating among the Muslim community which suggested that the governments were plotting to infect Muslim youth with the virus in quarantine centres. These rumours and strident attacks on the minority population led to a series of violent attacks on frontline healthcare workers in cities like Indore. In short, India has been at the receiving end of dubious, motivated fake news or disinformation related to COVID-19.
As India gets closer to vaccine breakthroughs and eventual nation-wide rollout, it must brace up to tackle vaccine misinformation on a war footing. Given India’s troubled past with regard to vaccination where a sizeable population have strong hesitancy to vaccination, some people are particularly likely to resort to falsehoods, conspiracy theories and wild rumours about the efficacy and side-effects of COVID-19 vaccines. This trend is already evident in the US, which went for vaccination a fortnight ago. Even before vaccine breakthroughs, a survey by LocalCricles found a staggering 59% of the surveyed population were hesitant or would not rush for vaccines in India.
In the past, major nation-wide immunisation drives such as polio have suffered due to misinformation and conspiracy theories. For instance, Muslims in Uttar Pradesh were opposed to oral poliovirus vaccine in early 2000s as they felt it may lead to ‘infertility’. In Kerala, diphtheria vaccination drive among its Muslim population badly suffered due to similar rumours in 2016. Simialrly, measles and rubella (MR) vaccination programme suffered in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu due to misinformation that some substance in the vaccine were derived from animals forbidden by Islamic law. In short, both past and ongoing experience of fighting misinformation related to the pandemic should sufficiently alarm governments (federal and states) to take urgent steps to stem the fake news and falsehoods on vaccination.
The best course for the government and its agencies handling COVID-19 is to take cues from the manners and modes in which fake news and misinformation were populated by social media platforms during different stages of the pandemic. In this regard, the government needs to proactively engage with major tech platforms, social media companies and their sister platforms to stem the rot before they go viral. While it is a welcome sign that key tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter have already announced their plans to quickly pullout fake news related to vaccination, India’s real challenge is to prevail over other spurious mediums particularly WhatsApp, which by far remains the biggest source of misinformation in the country. To conclude, India’s greatest challenge to mass vaccination against COVID-19 is not logistics or supply chain, rather fake news, misinformation and the vaccine naysayers.
Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...Read More +