Second wave of 'infodemic' hampering Covid-19 vaccination drives

Inadequately-informed influencers, miscreants, and well-intentioned individuals as well, have spread misinformation.
Inadequately-informed influencers, miscreants, and well-intentioned individuals as well, have spread misinformation.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Clad in a saffron robe, Baba Ramdev, one of India's leading yoga gurus, took to a podium a few days ago to lecture on the ills of modern medicine in tackling Covid-19.

Slamming doctors and front-line workers in the country who are struggling to cope amid a devastating second wave of the disease, he said: "More people died because of allopathic treatment than those who died of oxygen shortage or because of Covid-19."

In days thereafter, he continued with his tirade, making false claims that infuriated the medical community and stoked a debate that is still raging in the country.

India's federal Health Minister Harsh Vardhan demanded that Baba Ramdev withdraw his remarks. The latter complied but by then he had done enough to sow further doubt in the minds of many against vaccines.

Baba Ramdev has 11 million followers on Facebook and 2.4 million on Twitter.

The problem with such misinformation and disinformation is that they spread via platforms like WhatsApp in rural areas, where it becomes even more difficult to disprove them, said Ms Kritika Goel, associate editor at Mumbai-headquartered The Quint publication which runs the Webqoof fact-checking service.

The controversy surrounding Baba Ramdev is just one of several pointers to the problem of misinformation complicating efforts by India and other countries in the region to vaccinate the people.

Inadequately-informed influencers, miscreants, and well-intentioned individuals as well, have spread misinformation - given the ease of sharing over social media platforms - which in turn has confused those already reluctant to take the jabs, and ultimately dissuaded them as well.

More pervasive in densely populated locations with low digital literacy rates, misinformation is posing a difficult challenge for policymakers and health officials trying to ensure that as many people as possible are inoculated.

Ms Melissa Fleming, United Nations Under-Secretary General for Global Communications, said there is now a second wave of the "infodemic".

The first wave was dominated by misinformation surrounding the nature of the virus and wild conspiracy theories about its origin. The target has shifted to vaccines since November, she told a "How to Stop Vaccine Misinformation" webinar, organised by Foreign Policy, a United States-based publication, late last month.

Besides misinforming people, the false claims instill fear and hesitancy and even lead people to outright refusal to be vaccinated, she said.

South-east Asia too is grappling with the same problem.

Misinformation is a key reason for vaccine hesitancy in Indonesia, Mr Septiaji Eko Nugroho, chairman of Mafindo, an organisation fighting fake news in the country, told The Straits Times.

He highlighted a survey conducted in March by the Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting group, which showed that only 46 per cent of 1,220 respondents agreed to be inoculated. Twenty eight per cent refused while 23 per cent said they were unsure.

"Misinformation has a strong echo system and half-truths spread very, very quickly," he said.

"The clarifications cannot match the disinformation. We have difficulties combating false information. It makes the campaign to vaccinate people very challenging," he added.

The issue is currently being debated in Malaysia where only 3.5 per cent of the people had been fully vaccinated by May 30, according to the open-source Our World In Data website. But the nation's Star daily on Wednesday (June 2), quoting figures released by the country's Special Committee on Covid-19 Vaccine Supply, said at least 9 per cent of the population had received at least one dose as of Tuesday.

Asked if the government would consider new laws to deal with anti-vaxxers and those spreading fake news, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department (Parliament and Law) Datuk Seri Takiyuddin Hassan said there was scope within existing laws to handle the issue.

Thailand's Department of Special Investigation recently set up a centre to investigate "fake news" amid concerns that they would hamper vaccination efforts.

In Taiwan, the government moved to levy fines of up to NT$3 million (S$143,000) last month on those spreading false information and causing unnecessary panic.

The extent of the problem remains difficult to gauge though but an estimate of its severity can be gleaned from figures released by Facebook last month. The social media giant said that it had removed 18 million pieces of Covid-19 misinformation from Facebook and Instagram since the beginning of the pandemic. .

Even though efforts to counter the phenomenon are increasing, those involved firmly believe that longer term measures will be needed to address the issue systematically.

"Trust is a key challenge here," said Mr Wahyu Dhyatmika,  editor-in-chief of Indonesia's Tempo magazine, who is also co-founder of Cekfacta.com, a fact-checking service being run in collaboration with several other organisations.

The underlying reality is that the information ecosystem needs to meet the demand for accurate information that people understand, he added.

"Also, the virus keeps evolving, and there are variants now, which is confusing people. There are elderly people involved. We need to start digital literacy at a very early age to address the challenge," he said.

Media literacy is the way to fight misinformation, said Ms Manju Rose Mathews, head of journalism at Christ Nagar College in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, at another webinar organised by Unesco.

Journalism is getting drowned under an avalanche of disinformation and misinformation, she added.

"Fighting misinformation has become more important than ever. Curricular interventions are required to nurture skills for the new generation of media students," she said.

The media must fight the misinformation on platforms where the phenomenon exists, said Ms Goel of Webqoof.

"On our part, we are trying to come up with videos to bust fake information and send these over platforms where the misinformation is coming from," she added.

Correction note: In a previous version of the article, we referred to Harsh Vardhan as the Home Minister. It should be Health Minister. We are sorry for the error.