The pandemic has amplified the circulation of unverified information — both unwitting (misinformation) and deliberate (disinformation)
In June 2018, two Assam youths, an audio engineer and a digital artist, were killed brutally in a mob lynching while they were heading for a vacation. It was an avoidable tragedy that occurred due to a misleading social media post. The local people believed a post about child kidnappers moving in the area and thought that the two were kidnappers. This wasnot an isolated case. The rumours about child-abduction spread through WhatsApp messages were connected to at least 17 murders across India in 2018. Such lynching incidents in several parts of the country due to social media posts shook the nation and demonstrated the devastating impacts of misinformation.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, thesocial media emerged as a major source of misinformation. India emerged as the biggest source of COVID misinformation asone out of six postsabout the pandemic was based on fake information, according toa studyby the University of Alberta. It found that social media was the biggest producer of misinformation accounting for nearly 85 per cent of it. Internet-based sources made up 91 per cent of all COVID-related fake news. Among the countries, India was foundto be the biggest source of misinformation (18 per cent) followed by Brazil (9 per cent) and USA (8.6 per cent). The quantity of of misinformation was also the highest in India.
In fact misinformation is the emerging problem in the media landscape dominated by the social media in India. More than 400 million Indians have access to the internet on digital devices like smartphones. People with affordable phone and broadband connection have access to news and information flowing from different digital sources, but are not equipped to assess the veracity of claims usually made in these messages.
As per the latest data, Indians on an average spend about 2.36 hours on social media every day. The number of social media users in the country is growing by leaps and bounds due to the deep penetration of internet connectivity. The number of Internet users has grown to 658 million which is roughly 47 per czent of the total population. Of this, mobile internet users are about 600 million.The falling price of smartphones has driven the massive increase in the usage of mobile phones. The availability of internet connection at very low prices is another factor for a large-scale rise of internet subscribers.
The country’s higher internet penetrationrate, increasing social media consumption and user’s lack of digital literacy and regulation has led to increase the vulnerability of social media misinformation.The pandemichas amplified the circulation of unverified information - both unwitting (misinformation) and deliberate (disinformation).
The spread of misinformation poses a considerable threat to the life and lifestyle of the common people as evident from various studies. During the pandemic, misinformation related to false cures and conspiracy theories caused panic, anxiety, false hope, mental trauma and fear as the virus was spreading. Due to spread of health misinformation, the business of fake healthcare services and fake medicines also increased. The most prevalent impact of misinformation that were seen during and after the lockdown - suffered different kinds of socio-psychological impact in different parts of the country. Multiple languages and the diversified socio-cultural environment have made it more critical to address the problem.
A top World Health Organization official in August noted that misinformation about COVID and vaccines was keeping people from getting the shots, driving an increase in cases around the world.
Digital media literacy is one wayto help internet users in India to identify and disregard misinformation and disinformation, especially in regional languages and rural areas.
One such media literacy training program run by the FactShala India Media Literacy Network, was conducted across 28 states of the country. In early 2021 the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), an independent socialand media research think tank, conducted a comprehensive impact evaluation of FactShala’s training program. This evaluation study also tried to find out the impacts of the misinformation float on social media.
Many respondents in the study recalled that how misinformation impacted their health, communal harmonyin some parts of the country and also generated the fear, anxiety, false hope among many of them. The spread of misinformation makesmany people feel anxious, depressed, or emotionally exhausted. The respondents cited examples of posts that impacted their physical and mental health due to believing inwrong information on social media.
A young womanexplained that she didn’t isolate herself for many dayseven after testing positive for COVID because she read a post claiming that ‘if you can hold your breath for 30 seconds you aren’t COVID positive.’The study found many such cases where either the treatment or the preventive measures were delayed or stopped after reading misinformation or disinformation appeared on social media. Many posts were spreading information against vaccination. Few respondents admitted that they had read the posts that one can die also after vaccination. It created a fear among some people and boosted vaccine hesitancy.
Communal disharmony was the other major impact reported by respondents from Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. Posts carrying misinformation related to employment or cancellation of exams or promotion of next class were created false hope and anxiety among students and job seekers. After reading and believing the post appeared on different platform of social media many people suffered financial loss. During the interviews many respondents admitted that they were duped and suffered financial loss after reading the posts of money laundering or cheap tickets for the flights.
As there is so much information on the social media and online in general, identifying useful andaccurate sources is deceptively difficult for average users. Media literacy interventions have an important role as citizens are not checking online information for accuracy and authenticity, largely because of the sheer volume of messages and low levels of awareness about misinformation, disinformation and fact-checking.
Small, standalone interventions targeting school students or institutions exist but they tend to focus either on fact-checking and verification training, or critical thinking. To make people knowledgeable and secure online an effective mechanism for increasing information literacy and building resilience to misinformation and disinformation within communities is required.
(The writer is Director Advocacy, Centre for Media Studies and a development journalist. The views expressed are personal.)