Zainab Akbar and Joyojeet Pal
(Cite Akbar, Zainab, Pal, Joyojeet. 2021. Misinformation in India during the Second Wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic at http://joyojeet.people.si.umich.edu/covidsecondwave)
To understand the impact of misinformation on the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, we examined stories circulated online between March 1 and May 15, 2021 that have been debunked by fact-checkers. In order to identify ways in which the current misinformation environment is reflective of past patterns, we also conduct a comparative analysis of debunked misinformation in 2020 and 2021.
Our database consists of 663 unique stories from the IFCN certified fact-checkers – Boom, Digiteye, Factly, Indiatoday, Newsmeter, Newsmobile, Vishwas news – for the period of March 1st to May 15th of 2021. It covers debunked misinformation in English, Hindi, Bangla. Assamese, Punjabi and Telugu. This data is taken from the compilation of debunked information maintained by Tattle civic technologies. While COVID was a continuing theme through the period, there were several other major events including state legislature elections, the earthquake in Assam, the Suez blockage, communal violence in Bhainsa, and the Israel-Palestine conflict, all of which led to some additional levels of recorded misinformation. As with our previous studies, we hand-coded every article of misinformation into thematic buckets, and then graphically represent them for the patterns in content, temporality and thematic representations.
While there are several approaches to the thematic classification of misinformation used by various groups and fact-checkers, there isn’t a single approach that is widely used across domains. For our study, we built on our earlier categorization of thematic patterns to accommodate evolving patterns in the themes around which misinformation is crafted. We categorize misinformation into nine types which are explained below. While stories would ideally be tagged for multiple themes, in this study we used a categorical tagging approach in which each story was only tagged for what we felt was the single most appropriate theme.
|1||Business and Economy||Messages related to scams, business shutdowns, markets, industries or those that reference individual businessmen.||36|
|2||Religion and Culture||Messages in which the core theme relates to a religious, ethnic, regional, or social group.||127|
|3||Politics||Messages with references to politicians, political parties and their associated bodies.||166|
|4||Government||Messages related to the administration – including government lockdowns, announcements, advisories, police or the judiciary.||125|
|5||Science and Health||Messages related to scientific developments including in medicine, preventative measures, vaccines, and alternative therapy.||129|
|6||Adversity||Messages relating to casualties such as fatalities, injury, violence, loss of property.||58|
|7||International||Messages with references to international bodies, foreign countries and personnel||36|
|8||Entertainment||Messages relating to Bollywood or sports celebrities or referencing popular culture.||25|
|9||Other||Messages related to themes of environment, history, technology (outside of science and health) and education.||36|
The first pattern we see is that there is more utilitarian misinformation – the kind which seeks or pretends to offer solutions or scientific claims, than existential misinformation – which seeks to make sense of a problem within a larger social context. To explain, during the first round of Covid-19 in March and April 2020, we found that the misinformation circulating in India started with utilitarian misinformation presenting treatment, preventative mechanisms etc, till the end of March 2020. This slowly reduced as it became increasingly clear in the mainstream media as well as pronouncements of politicians, influencers etc. that there was neither a cure, nor medical means of prevention. At this point, the misinformation turned to more existential, or blame-based misinformation, typically political in nature, which turned to sensemaking that blamed communities such as the Chinese, or Muslims, for the virus.
During the second wave, we see a new spike in such utilitarian misinformation. We see in figure 1 below that the trend-lines show decreases in misinformation about politicians and political parties, and an increase in misinformation about casualties around the diseases, as well as their causes and cures. Thus while “Politics” as a category declines, “Science and Health” and “Adversity” see increases starting in the second week of March 2021, as the disease starts exacting a dramatic toll throughout the country. At the risk of oversimplifying, fear-mongering overtakes hate-mongering during the second phase of Covid.
Figure 1: Week-wise distribution of thematic patterns
While the two top categories of misinformation are ‘politics’ and ‘government’ through the entire period, we focus our attention on the developments since April 2021, during which the two categories of science and health and adversity related misinformation increased ostensibly. We focus on these, but particularly on science and health, since there are specific, important narrative arcs to the kind of misinformation we see in this space.
Misinformation about COVID
We now examine some of the major threads in the recent round of misinformation as they relate to COVID. Most of this misinformation about COVID was what in Figure 1 maps to Science and Health, and Adversity. Despite the general theme, several the stories are explicitly ‘unscientific’ but are often couched in empirical logic to appear convincing. We look at four overall topics that dominated the conversation about COVID – cure, vaccines, oxygen, and death.
Among areas that see most significant spikes in misinformation is in that of cures for Covid-19. One set of stories follows some anatomical logic, often derived either from mainstream or traditional medicine, whereas a second set of stories follows a cultural logic, related to prayer or personal habits.
There has been a resurgence of stories about traditional cures related to nose and throat ailments, such as on the use of honey, ginger, and pepper in drinks, or the use of steam inhalation. A popular piece of misinformation, also increasingly used as a humorous meme, has been on the curative and preventative role of alcohol consumption on Covid-19. A related set of misinformation has been on the use of fruits and vegetables as preventative – Chikoos, Bananas, and Onions have all made the list. Such misinformation tends to be persistent and sticky, since those who engage with them see them as harmless, even if false, and propagate them as with a ‘just in case’ logic, even when suspecting they are false.
Another body of medical misinformation has been around the use of drugs or therapy that have received some scientific engagement in the past, but have since either been shown as ineffective, or relevant only in certain medical scenarios. There has been a spike in misinformation about the drug Remdesivir, which has been in the news significantly for its use in some cases. However, Remdesivir is very hard to come by, so it increases the amount of misinformation proposing ways of getting one’s hands on it, but at the same time. A separate set of misinformation has emerged around commonly found, and sometimes over-the-counter pharmacy medicines such as aspirin or common antibiotics. This misinformation offers some benefit of familiarity, and thus a possibility of action, translating to the hoarding of these medicines, which has been widely reported in the news.
One of the most interesting trends in misinformation has been around the use of Plasma, in part because a large number of social media influencers, politicians, and even journalists have been party to propping it up in the news. Plasma-related misinformation taps into the ‘just in case’ logic of home-cures, but it also plays a different and important role in public action around the pandemic. Plasma has given people a way to feel ‘involved’ in the fight against COVID, both through low-contact means such as forwarding along plasma requirement messages, but also by potentially seeing themselves as donors.
Misinformation that adopts a cultural logic tends to be driven by religious belief, such as requests for prayer or notions that COVID does not survive in the Hindu holy river Ganges, the role of various forms of ‘energy’ such as ‘vibrations’ in curing or protecting people from the disease. Other misinformation that implicitly proposes cultural exceptionalism is that vegetarianism is related to reduced rates of COVID infection.
Figure 3: Stories on Fruits and vegetables that cure COVID19 (Clockwise: Lemon juice; Chikoo; Onion; Banana)
The second area of major expansion of health-related misinformation is around vaccination. Vaccine-related misinformation has only existed for the last few months, but has grown in different ways, in various platforms. There are two broad types of misinformation. The first relates to the logistics of getting vaccinated, the second relates to purported health effects of the vaccine. On the logistics of vaccination, we find that there is a mix of mischievous misinformation and financially motivated misinformation. On logistics, mischievous misinformation includes messaging around empty syringes and proposing that places are handing out fake vaccines or misinformation about who is eligible for vaccines and when. The financially motivated logistical misinformation on vaccines includes fake registration links that may lead to phishing attempts or ads.
The second type of misinformation, on the health impacts, is a deeper and more insidious form of vaccine misinformation that is driven largely by anti-vaxxers. This includes generic effect and side-effect misinformation about the vaccines, such as claims of ineffectiveness and of death. Misinformation about effects on specific populations, such as children, pregnant women, mensurating women etc.
Two factors have made vaccine-related misinformation widely popular in recent weeks. First, that there is a multiplicity of vaccines in the market with different origins, and second, that there is difference in their effectiveness. Moreover, the notion of effectiveness is itself misunderstood as preventing infection, rather than preventing its more dramatic outcomes. The origins of the various vaccines have dovetailed over existing preconceptions about vaccination– thus long-standing conspiracy theories about vaccines as a means of negatively impacting some subset of populations as a form of geological warfare, such as stories about polio vaccines aimed at making men sterile have reemerged in other forms. Such conspiracy theories often involve a villain – thus the Microsoft corporation has appeared in misinformation, for instance a notion that a small Microsoft ‘chip’ has been implanted in vaccines, which taps into fears about technology-based surveillance. The company’s founder Bill Gates has long been targeted by conspiracy theorists for his work on vaccine propagation. Likewise, the Chinese on both vaccine-related misinformation, as well as conspiracy theories on international plans to spread the disease.
Figure 4: Stories related to conspiracy theories related to COVID19 (Clockwise: Microsoft chip in Pfizer vaccine; 5g network causing COVID19 deaths; Astra Zeneca means weapon of destruction; Worms in masks; Vaccines are from the Chinese;Vegetarians & Smokers less likely to contract COVID19)
Figure 5: Stories on deaths due to vaccination (Diclofenac after vaccination caused death; 40 students dead after vaccination)
A separate body of misinformation emerged around Oxygen. This was presumably driven by the extreme shortages of oxygen that were seen in mid-April, leading to panicked social media postings from families seeking oxygen or hospital beds for their families. The increased sensitivity to oxygen as a topic has led to widely circulated misinformation about oxygen.
The first, aligned with the ‘utilitarian’ misinformation to ‘fix’ the problem are stories on increasing oxygen, either ‘in body’ such as stories that claimed a mix of herbs such as cloves, camphor held up at one’s nose increases access to oxygen, and thereby oxygen saturation in bodies. These stories are also presented with a scientific justification, for instance, that these methods of increasing oxygen to the body are used in high-altitude areas. Along with them, there are also false claims about ayurvedic medicine’s ability in increasing body oxygen levels, and that of nebulizer machines for breathing. Nebulizers ironically were used by a political party in Tamil Nadu to publicize its efforts in COVID relief.
We also observe debunked posts that focused on increasing Oxygen concentration in external environments. Interestingly, these stories had a cultural element. Cowdung (which alongside cow urine has also appeared in misinformation about cures in the past) appeared in misinformation here, with claims that burning it increased oxygen. Another debunked piece of information claimed that a Hindu Yagna fire, with burning ghee, released oxygen in the atmosphere.
The second body of misinformation with oxygen at its center was around shortages. Here, we see the role of panic in pushing narratives that people were willing to buy into, given the frenzied social media environment, particularly in April 2020. We see both unchecked, short-form social media misinformation about where shortages were taking place that were fueled by user’s amplification without verifying the stories, as well as crafted messages about oxygen shortages planted by people intending to mislead readers.
The overlay of misinformation about institutions, scenes of carnage at hospitals and crematoria, created the conditions to allow for various forms of shortage-related misinformation, and false stories about how institutions were handling the crisis. One set of stories were about hospitals, and that they were a death trap, urging people to instead work out home remedies for oxygen, another set of stories on oxygen hoarding emerged (some of which was presumably indeed happening) but possibly pushed individuals towards their own hoarding, if they had the means to do so. Possibly the most widespread was a series of mischievous or intentionally misleading posts about oxygen suppliers. A number of scams emerged where individuals posted false sources for oxygen, took payments from desperate patients, and vanished with cash.
Figure 6: Stories on substitutes of oxygen (Smelling Camphor/lavang increases oxygen levels; Peepal leaves are a substitute for medical oxygen; Homeopathy medicine Aspidosperma-Q substitutes medical oxygen, 10 gms of ghee in Yajna produces 1 Ton of Oxygen; People with low oxygen levels can use cow for mouth to mouth; 10gms of cow dung produces 1000 tons of oxygen; Nebulizer is substitute for oxygen)
A marked feature of the second wave of COVID was misinformation featuring graphic imagery of adversity and desperation. These images and texts may be triggering for readers.
The goal of most misinformation of this sort is precisely to shock and scare readers. Unlike with much of the misinformation we see under science and health, there were no clear cases of profiteering.
The dramatic images on mainstream and social media of lines outside hospitals and of funerary processes for the deceased set the stage for misinformation with various forms of graphic imagery, presented as cases on the ground. One set of misinformation was around the transportation of the deceased through unconventional modes, including two-wheelers, rickshaws, stretchers. The safety conventions related to the disposal of the deceased, particularly drove stories about bodies in plastic bags.
In addition to the graphic imagery, there was also misinformation hospitals and their treatment of the dead. Representations of the dead in large numbers – at mortuaries, cremation grounds, and eventually at the banks of rivers spewed misinformation that took the pictures out of context, or made claims about the causes for death, such as hospitals willfully killing patients.
Figure 7: Stories related to death in the adversity category (Clockwise: Man carrying dead wife’s body on a two-wheeler; Bodies piled up in a Morgue; Dead bodies in cremation ground in Gujarat; Mass burning of COVID19 related dead bodies; Dead bodies piled up in a hospital in Chhattisgarh; Man carrying a corpse on cycle)
The second wave of COVID has thus far departed from the first, in that it did not quickly turn communal. The thread, if any, is a lack of faith in institutions – healthcare or government, in providing the citizenry with the needed resources to move on. There have been some stories presenting communal angles – such as parties of people which have images of men in skull caps, presenting a narrative that Muslim men were spreading COVID during Iftar parties, but the enduring images of thousands of devotees taking a dip at the Ganges at a time when the entire health system was crumbling, made short work of any claims of minority conspiracy in this new wave of infections. Unlike in the first wave, when lockdowns were a major driver of misinformation, this wave saw equally, or arguably more draconian lockdowns in various states, but had only a small number of (debunked) stories about lockdown extensions, vandalism amidst lockdown, and police action against citizens. There was some anti-lockdown propaganda, proposing that the economic losses outweighed the benefits (this thread was very popular in the US, for instance).
Figure 8: Stories showing anti-lockdown protests in various places.
Some patterns correspond to earlier rounds of misinformation, such as the sharing of recycled or doctored images, the use of artifacts such as official-looking websites or documents, the use of celebrity ‘endorsers’ of misinformation. But the critical element of misinformation in this wave was the explosion of unverifiable short form messaging on social media, particularly about the appeals of help from people. These, while not the traditional “forwarded message” nonetheless were emblematic of a deeply broken information environment. While the government attempted to arrest or shut down people accused of spreading misinformation, the deeper pathology of the situation was lost. The misinformation exploded in part because of the collapse of health services and the institutions that aid readily available treatment, leading a vocal subset of citizens to rely on online sources for their information.
What happened in India in the past months should be a case for concern for other nation states which may have this headed their way sooner than later.