Messaging app chat groups a catchment for Covid-19 misinformation on ivermectin, vaccines

Checks by The Sunday Times found at least 17 Telegram groups and channels spreading Covid-19 misinformation. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Editorial content producer Theophila Toh, 24, is on a mission: to connect with those in anti-vaccination messaging groups and address fake news there.

She was inspired after a 65-year-old woman was hospitalised on Oct 1 after taking ivermectin - a drug used to treat parasite infections - on the advice of her church friends who said it could protect her against Covid-19.

Ms Toh said she has been worried about her father, 58, who has been reading about ivermectin online. She said: "The Internet is flooded with different pieces of information, and sometimes it's all quite overwhelming. And it's difficult to figure out what's real and what's not."

Checks by The Sunday Times found at least 17 Telegram groups and channels spreading Covid-19 misinformation. Telegram groups allow members to exchange information while channels allow its creators to broadcast messages to their subscribers.

The groups have about 1,000 to 14,000 members each. Hundreds of messages about the safety and effectiveness of mRNA Covid-19 vaccines are sent daily in these groups and channels, with users sharing a deluge of journal articles, videos and anecdotes.

In the chat groups she is in, Ms Toh joins discussions where false information is shared.

She makes it a point to respond with empathy and in a non-confrontational way, then shares information from reliable sources such as peer-reviewed journals.

But academics told The Sunday Times that false information about Covid-19 is tricky to tackle.

This is because of the abundance of conflicting claims by medical professionals, readily available online and shared within social circles, and anxiety about the rising number of community cases.

Dr Annabelle Chow, a clinical psychologist who has a special interest in geriatric issues, said the elderly are particularly vulnerable to misinformation about the side effects of vaccines and the potential serious consequences that taking them might have.

She said: "With the recent spike in Covid-19 cases and increasing number of individuals being hospitalised, those that were not believing in the efficacy of the vaccine before are more likely to see this information as a confirmation the vaccine might not be efficacious."

In three Telegram groups, users encouraged others to read up on using ivermectin to cure Covid-19 or to treat post-vaccination symptoms, citing articles published by groups of doctors affiliated with prominent anti-vaccine organisations.

One user recommended the drug as a supplement to lessen or prevent purported damage caused by mRNA vaccines.

The Health Sciences Authority has warned that using ivermectin without a doctor's prescription is dangerous as the drug is unproven as a treatment for Covid-19.

But some netizens argued the hospitalised woman must have procured the drug from an unreliable supplier or country, while others claimed her illness was because she had taken the Sinopharm vaccine.

A 65-year-old woman was hospitalised after taking ivermectin on the advice of her church friends who said it could protect her against Covid-19. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MS VANESSA KOH

Dr Carol Soon, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, said misinformation about vaccine injuries and alternative cures might be more convincing because they are framed as personal anecdotes.

"These anecdotes appeal to people's emotions which are already at a heightened state as Singapore sees increasing numbers of infected persons and deaths."

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser said those who are convinced about the high risk and low efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines may have been emboldened to erode public confidence in the vaccines because of conflicting claims made by medical scientists or doctors.

He noted that findings about Covid-19, which is still developing, are understandably tentative.

Professor Lim Sun Sun, the head of humanities, arts and social sciences at Singapore University of Technology and Design, said some of the messages on these groups are not necessarily misinformation, but might be facts taken out of context and misinterpreted without medical expertise.

Closed chat groups, such as those on WhatsApp, are another catchment for misinformation.

However, ignoring someone who shares fake news about Covid-19 on a family group chat can be harmful, said Associate Professor Edson C. Tandoc Jr, director of the NTU Centre for Information Integrity and the Internet.

He said: "It is possible that some seniors share information not because they believe in it, but because they are unsure, and they hope that someone may vet this information for them.

"If no one says anything, they take that as meaning that the information shared is not problematic."

Some seniors like business development manager Denny Tian, 66, are educating their peers to be more critical about the sources of information.

He said: "We organise virtual sessions to show the reality, that seniors who are vaccinated live happily and not in fear."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.