December , 2020
Tearing through the trap of misinformation
11:26 am

Kuntala Sarkar

Almost a year has passed since the Covid-19 virus struck. Scientists and researchers are presently busy in finding a permanent cure. However, there is a mountain of misinformation being widely circulated on Covid-19 including about vaccines against it. Types of negative messages include misinformation (false or misleading information unintentionally shared), disinformation (false information which is purposely shared to mislead people), conspiracy theories, and fake news or fictitious information that imitates genuine news regarding the vaccine.

These negative messages are mostly being shared in social networking and messaging platforms by individuals and organised groups. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is also concerned about the fact. It has identified the trend as an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation. However, even before the problem with the Covid-19 vaccines cropped up, there has been similar cases with vaccines of other diseases.

Misinformation related to vaccines

Most of the misinformation regarding vaccines is related to whether people should take the vaccines or not. Other misinformation and disinformation are related to the making and generation of the vaccine, its phases and trials, safety, efficacy, ingredients and side effects. Next in the row in the scheme of misinformation is the supply side issues - that is to whom and when the vaccines will be delivered and in how many doses.

The proliferation of misinformation is multi-layered. Both individuals and groups like ‘Rage Against the Vaccines’ are circulating these. AFP, a major fact-checking organisation has published more than 2,000 fact-checking articles and disclosed major false claims about the virus and the vaccines. AFP also showed that a false claim was being circulated regarding the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that this mRNA vaccine contains ‘nanotechnology’. Another article containing misinformation stated that Bill Gates is planning to use the Covid-19 vaccine to microchip people. A number of Facebook posts shared also claimed that there is connection between 5G technology and Covid vaccines. Another Facebook disinformation post said that vaccines contain MRC-5 which are aborted foetal cells and other DNA. Such misinformation and disinformation jeopardise the vaccination process as it creates mistrust in the minds of the general public.

Along with Facebook, even in Twitter, posts have been shared that the vaccines are ‘transfection agents, kept alive so it can infect your cells and transfer genetic material’. The same post added, ‘This is a genetic manipulation of humans on a massive scale’. But the truth is that the RNA cannot alter a person’s genome.

How is it being circulated?

Most of the users accept news or information in social media without evaluating the credibility of the sources. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are being used as mediums for circulating dubious facts and fake news. Along with social media, video streaming applications have also been flooded with misinformation and these have been accepted due to lack of proper knowledge of the readers and audiences. The healthcare sector is facing major challenges for this. For example, hesitancy among people about taking the vaccines around the world is growing. A study by Johns Hopkins University in 67 countries has found that acceptance of vaccines has declined sharply between July-October in 2020.

What steps are being taken

Many countries have started to roll out the Covid-19 vaccines. Considering this, Facebook which is one of the frequently used applications where misinformation is being disseminated, in its statement on December 3, has declared, “We will remove false claims that Covid-19 vaccines contain microchips, or anything else that isn’t on the official vaccine ingredient list. We will also remove conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines that we know today are false.” YouTube, recently in a statement said that it will also remove videos that contain misinformation about the vaccines.

Fact-checking is important

Trusting any forwarded message without proper data and proof can spread misinformation across virtual platforms. Checking multiple sources to get the correct information is needed. Pew Research Center, WHO’s newly launched Covid-19 vaccines page, Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Nature journal are some of the reliable sources that people can follow to check facts about the vaccines. WHO has created a page titled ‘Mythbusters’ where people can gather accurate knowledge about the coronavirus. In India, a website named is the accurate source of information about any officially available vaccines. Additionally, updates from ICMR and the central health department may be followed to verify facts regarding vaccines.  

Media is a very important tool in this respect. Media can create awareness about misinformation.  Recently, PAHO has published a precise guideline for journalists who are covering the pandemic related news.

What to do? 

Identifying the accurate vaccine is as important as knowing vital information about the vaccines. Whether it is a correct vaccine or not, how many doses are required are some of the most crucial information. Significantly, as per government guidelines, healthcare professionals and frontline workers will receive the vaccines initially. Then it will be made available for the other sections of the population. At this juncture, people must wait for precise government announcements regarding the vaccine and not fall prey to any misinformation.

Center for Countering Digital Hate Ltd. (CCDH) has started an initiative in the United Kingdom called #DontSpreadtheVirus for dealing and fighting against the coronavirus misinformation. The initiative is an ‘evidence-driven approach to countering the scourge of misinformation’ concerning coronavirus on social media and messaging applications. The guideline by CCDH to put a stop in misinformation, urges people not to engage themselves in the spread of misinformation, not to reply, share or quote the same. In addition to that, creating awareness or letting the person know about the misinformation who is sharing it, is a responsibility. One can personally communicate with the individual who is spreading misinformation. Blocking or reporting the person or the groups can help to curb them and remove the content from a platform. To drown out fake news and misinformation, sharing official scientific statement on the matter and promoting good causes in the tough time will undoubtedly help. It also gives an indication that India can fight misinformation this way. Flood of misinformation in social network sites, gradually becomes the reason for anxiety in people that eventually worsens the critical healthcare situation. During a period when scientists are already battling to demolish the virus, no one should engage in something that will actually act as a barrier between common people and scientific developments.

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