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The ‘Infodemic’ In This Pandemic: How Misinformation Worsened Covid-19

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.
ReimagineTogether logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #ReimagineTogether, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with UNICEF India, YuWaah and Generation Unlimited, to spark conversations to create a new norm and better world order in the post-pandemic future. How have you and those around you coped with the pandemic? Join the conversation by telling us your COVID story and together, let's reimagine a safer, better and more equal future for all!

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.

Among a plethora of social shortcomings exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, that of misinformation and fake news was a rather grand one. While the phenomenon of misinformation is not new to Indian society, its strong presence on social media platforms, including our WhatsApp groups, is what made it a rather harmful “infodemic.” From news pieces on unverified COVID-19 cures to more gruesome villainization of entire communities to doctored videos about the front-line workers, the past few months have seen the Indian wavelengths rife with all forms of misinformation.

In this light, Youth Ki Awaaz in partnership with the United Nations in India as a part of UN75 and the Verified initiative to combat COVID-19 misinformation hosted a Facebook live on “Misinformation and the Pandemic Grapevine.” The session aimed to discuss the importance of accurate information to help save lives and the range of ways that can be deployed to tackle the growth of misinformation. The entire live event on Facebook can be found here.

Jaskirat Singh Bawa; Senior Editor, News, Fact-Check and Audience Engagement, The Quint

Building from his experience as a part of a certified fact-checking network, Jaskirat began with elaborating the edge that fake news has over verified information. He mentioned that since misinformation is circulated through WhatsApp messages or social media posts, most of which are textual in structure, it is easier to spread it around.

On the other hand, fact-checking efforts, which essentially rely on the credibility of their web portals, come with links and elaborate explanations. This, according to Jaskirat, is immediately off-putting. Moreover, he also explained how the “confirmation bias” makes it easier for people to ignore information that doesn’t sit well with their existing beliefs, worsens the situation.

As a result of this two-pronged problem, the world has shifted to a “post-fact” society, where, as Jaskirat put it, “a lie travels halfway across the world before the truth even puts its boots on.”

While talking about his experience in solving the issue of misinformation, he stressed on the importance of making the harmful impact of fake news more visible. He mentioned that when people, who find it easy to forward misinformation, are made to interact with the consequences of similar pieces of fake news, like deaths or lynchings, they were more likely to curb their behaviour.

Along with this form of individual effort, Jaskirat also mentioned the responsibility of today’s information moguls and social media companies. Given the fact that these platforms are the breeding grounds for most pieces of misinformation, he propounded, they must put in more resources to curb the infodemic.

Surabhi Malik, Program Director and Country Lead, India, Internews

As part of an international NGO that works to fight the problem of misinformation, Surabhi expanded further on the role that consumer responsibility played in disseminating fake news. She mentioned that a lack of care towards “information hygiene,” combined with a lack of gatekeeping that comes with social media, has exacerbated misinformation.

Moreover, she also argued that a lack of media literacy among the masses further worsens the situation. Absence of knowledge around healthy news consumption, problems of over-reliance on social media, and lack of initiatives to explain the importance of fact-checking were reasons behind an en masse adoption of misinformation.

Surabhi’s analysis of solving the problem of misinformation emerged from a dual approach of patience and collaboration. She stressed that to begin with, one’s own family could be a good first step in the fight against misinformation. In this context, she argued that there is a need for the youth to understand that their elders were never given any form of internet education.

In such a scenario, their exposure to the well-connected world made it extremely easy for them to follow the urge to broadcast their beliefs. As a result, she explained how there was a need for a patient conversation about the need and benefits of fact-checking a piece of information before sharing.

Kamna Chhibber, Clinical Psychologist and Head – Mental Health Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare

Advancing Jaskirat’s initial insights into the confirmation bias, Kamna was able to link its existence with the algorithms that social media platforms work on. Since these domains are created to meet our interests, she pointed out how we isolate ourselves from contradictory viewpoints. This constant barrage of like-minded information, combined with the fear of interacting with opposing ideas, and the failure of our education system to teach critical thinking, necessarily, reduce our ability to trust others.

As a result, she explained how “we had been thrust in an online space, continually looking for information, and not processing any of it critically.” Building on the psychological concept of “cognitive laziness,” she also elaborated on the lack of interest that people feel towards putting in the extra effort to fact check information, thus contributing to the infodemic.

She stated a list of five questions that she felt were important to ask before sharing any information: Who has created this information? What makes this information attractive/ sensational? Will people view this information differently from me? What beliefs/ values does this information appeal to? Why was this message even sent?

These questions, which, essentially, probed the source, the content, and the impact of the news items, helped individuals assess whether the items were worth sharing. She stressed that since social media’s existence is permanent in the modern world, it is also a partial responsibility of individual consumers to ensure factual dissemination of information.

Dr Sparsh Kumar, MBBS, Dr DY PATIL Medical College and YouTuber

Dr Sparsh helped recalibrate the discussion back to the impact of misinformation on doctors and front line workers, especially during the pandemic. Elaborating on his own experience, he mentioned that the phenomenon of fake news had been an emerging trend for medical workers for a long time now.

According to Sparsh, the difference emerges when the lives at stake are not just individuals, but entire communities. For example, in the case of migrant workers, who had to get medically-authorized certificates before being allowed to travel, fake news became a part of a systemic problem by further confusing them about the appropriate procedures involved. Similarly, misinformation also led to many doctors and healthcare workers being asked to vacate their apartments, which was, again, something he had noticed with his colleagues.

Discussing his experience as a Youtuber, Sparsh also mentioned that one of the most encouraging aspects of his time was his video on misinformation became the most liked one on his channel soon after its release.

He mentioned how, with the support of some media folks, he could use his expertise as a doctor to dispel accurate information during the pandemic. Sparsh’s transition from a doctor to a Youtuber also underlined the fundamental importance that social media platforms carried with them, acting as a connective force between the masses.

Zafrin Chowdhary, Chief Of Communication, Advocacy And Partnerships, UNICEF India

Tying up everyone’s open threads together, Zafrin’s experience of working with governmental bodies throughout the pandemic provided a solution-based lens to the entire discussion. She stressed the importance of social harmony and cohesion, highlighting that misinformation contributed to the dismantling of the said harmony effectively.

Broadcasting the two avenues for fighting the pandemic, “Science and Solidarity,” she also mentioned the anti-stigma efforts that UNICEF rolled out in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MoHSW).

Additionally, Zafrin also underlined the strategic interventions planned between UNICEF, the MoHSW, and 13 other UN agencies. Reiterating the four pillars of advocacy, capacity building, community engagement, and media engagement, she mentioned how there had been multifaceted attempts to reach different groups of people, including, but not limited to, people infected of COVID-19, migrant workers, people travelling during the pandemic, first responders, and front-line workers.

Similarly, using campaigns like “Take Care Before You Share,” that encouraged the youth to take up fact-checking practices, and collaborating with both mainstream and regional influencers, enabled them to reinforce important messages to the farthest corners of the country.

The one-hour long conversation succeeded in covering a range of topics, like causes of misinformation, enablers behind its dissemination, means to curb its popularity and practical interventions that can be taken up by the society. One of the overarching themes that emerged from the discussion was the need for a collaborative approach while moving forward, leaving no one behind, and achieving a mutually supportive society that learns off and improves each other.

You must be to comment.
  1. Niraj Chandra

    There was a lot of misinformation about the pandemic in the mainstream media, also. Maybe, I should write a blog about that.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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