Urgent steps must be taken by Centre, States, to stem misinformation on vaccination going viral, writes Niranjan Sahoo

With breakthroughs in vaccines, many countries, including India, are gearing up for vaccination drives against Covid-19. While the logistics and supply chain remain two of the biggest challenges for mass immunisation on 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 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 become crocodiles”. This has attracted unprecedented attention in ever busy social media channels. Given that vaccine hesitancy is a major challenge, misinformation on its likely efficacy 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 in fighting a fast-spreading pandemic.

Global phenomenon

The fake news around its origin, nature and extent of its spread and the kind of threats it posed overwhelmed almost every nation, big or small. For instance, a major study carried out by the 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 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 because of pandemic-related misinformation as much as India. As soon as the first infection was registered in January, a torrent of fake news, ranging from its origin and spread to its cure, had flooded every major means of communication, posing an additional challenge for governments already hard-pressed to contain the pandemic. Compared to many countries 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.

Indians more susceptible

It is noteworthy to mention that with more than 400 million active users of social media channels, particularly Facebook and Twitter, and twice this number having access to the internet and digital media, India is on the radar of most big tech and social media companies. However, compared to many countries, Indians are more susceptible to fake news and misinformation.

To illustrate, glance at some of the major incidents in the last 10 months. When India registered its first corona 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, the ICMR (Indian Council for Medical Research), to issue appeals to people to not self-medicate. Not only this, authorities had to issue a series of complaints and notifications to print and social media platforms to curb fake April Fool's 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 by the Government and a takeover by the military.

Far worse was the misinformation on non-vegetarian food, particularly regarding the consumption of chicken and eggs as spreading the infection. This dangerously motivated fake news was easily believed by many people, causing major harm to the poultry industry. It led poultry farmers culling millions of birds and in some cases, setting them free. According to one estimate, poultry farmers incurred losses to the tune of Rs 2,000 crore.

Vilifying a community

However, the most debilitating Covid misinformation was the Tablighi Jamaat incident in March. The controversial Islamic seminary congregation held in Delhi, was alleged to have caused a major uptick in corona infections in the country, prompting 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 like #CoronaJihad and #CoronaVillains, vilifying an entire community. Much worse, a number of fake videos began circulating among Muslims, which suggested that 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.

Fighting vaccine misinformation

As India gets closer to an eventual nation-wide rollout of vaccines, it must brace to tackle vaccine misinformation on a war footing. Given our troubled past with regard to vaccination, where a sizeable population has a strong hesitancy to it, some people are particularly likely to resort to falsehoods, conspiracy theories and spread wild rumours about the efficacy and side-effects of the Covid vaccines. This trend is already evident in the US, which began vaccinations a fortnight ago. Even before vaccine breakthroughs, a survey by LocalCircles found a staggering 59 per cent of the surveyed Indian population were hesitant or would not rush to be vaccinated in India.

In the past, major nation-wide immunisation drives, such as for polio, have suffered due to misinformation and conspiracy theories. For instance, Muslims in Uttar Pradesh were opposed to the oral polio vaccine in the early 2000s, as they felt it may lead to ‘infertility’. In Kerala, the diphtheria vaccination drive among its Muslim population badly suffered due to similar rumours in 2016.

Similarly, the measles and rubella (MR) vaccination programme suffered in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, due to misinformation that some constituents of the vaccine were derived from animals forbidden in Islam. In short, both past and ongoing experience of fighting pandemic- related misinformation should alarm governments (federal and States) into taking urgent steps to stem the fake news and falsehoods on vaccination.

The best course for authorities is to take cues from the manner and mode 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 it goes viral.

While it is a welcome sign that key tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter have already announced their plans to quickly pull out 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 the logistics or supply chain but rather, fake news, misinformation and the vaccine naysayers.

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with the ORF's Governance and Politics Initiative. Views expressed are personal.

The Observer Research Foundation

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Free Press Journal