Misinformation linked to Covid-19 vaccines still a concern in India

New Delhi: While US President Joe Biden hit out at Facebook and other social media platforms last month, alleging they were killing people through misinformation around the Covid-19 and vaccines, fact checkers in India said misinformation linked to the pandemic has come down with the drop in cases. However, posts and content linked to vaccines and vaccine hesitancy are still a cause of concern.

Anti-vaxxer groups in India are unorganised but are banking on information and posts circulating in the US, they said.

“The misinformation that we are debunking is primarily around vaccines because we believe that serves the larger public good,” said Saurabh Shukla, founder and editor in chief of NewsMobile. “We have collaborated with Facebook for a new initiative called COVISHAALA that has leading doctors on board to train citizens in detecting Covid-19 and vaccine-linked misinformation. We have also roped in our partner Logically from the UK on this initiative,” he said.

Shukla said a lot more can be done around creating capacity at the districts and grassroot levels so that the flow of misinformation can be nipped in the bud.

In a response to ET’s queries, Facebook said it has a “robust” three-part strategy for addressing misinformation centred on “Remove, Reduce and Inform” and that it has launched campaigns such as #DoctorKiSuno in India to tackle misinformation on the platform that include a series of 12 videos of leading doctors who address the most commonly asked questions on Covid-19.

Facebook said it also expanded its third-party fact-checking programme in India to include the first health-specialist partner, The Healthy Indian Project (THIP), and that through the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond, it will continue working with partners and the community to ensure it is effectively tackling misinformation.

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A Google spokesperson said recognising users’ need for access to credible information to address widespread misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, YouTube created a separate space where users can find reliable answers to their questions in multiple Indian languages from authoritative sources. “As part of this effort, 16 playlists in 8+ languages including English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Marathi covered multiple topics on vaccination, Covid-19 care and prevention, featuring content from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, MyGov India, leading hospitals such as AIIMS, Apollo Hospitals, Max Healthcare, etc.,” the spokesperson added. The spokesperson also said through the #vaccinesahihai campaign, top creators built “engaging” shorts to address vaccine hesitancy and misinformation with content from authoritative sources.

Alt News cofounder Pratik Sinha said vaccine misinformation still continued. “There is a very dedicated anti-vaxxer group in India now. The Indian anti-vaxxer group is piggybacking on the American anti-vaxxer group. It could get bigger if we don’t deal with it at this stage,” he said, adding: “Vaccination has gone into the realm of conspiracy theories and it’s very difficult to disprove conspiracy theories. A lot of misinformation is generated outside India.”

Jency Jacob, managing director at BOOM, said misinformation around Covid-19 has gone down with the drop in cases though posts around vaccines keep circulating and several anti-vaxxers are working on this.

Covid-linked misinformation follows the news cycle, Factly founder Rakesh Dubbudu said. “When cases were high, we saw a lot of misinformation around deaths and the spreading of Covid-19. These days we don’t see a lot of misinformation. The anti-vaxx groups in India operate very differently from the US. It’s not an organised movement here. Whenever there are reports we do see an uptick in activity but otherwise, not much,” he added.

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