The pandemic has amplified the flow of unverified information – both unintentional (misinformation) and deliberate (misinformation)
In June 2018, two Assam youths, a sound engineer and a digital artist, were brutally killed in a lynching as they went on vacation. It was a preventable tragedy that happened due to a misleading social media post. Locals believed an article about child kidnappers moving through the area and thought the two were kidnappers. It was not an isolated case. Child abduction rumors spread through WhatsApp messages were linked to at least 17 murders across India in 2018. Such incidents of lynching in several parts of the country due to social media posts have rocked the nation and demonstrated the devastating effects of misinformation.
During the coronavirus pandemic, social media has emerged as a major source of misinformation. According to a University of Alberta study, India has become the biggest source of COVID misinformation, as one in six articles about the pandemic were based on false information. He revealed that social media was the biggest producer of misinformation, accounting for almost 85% of it. Internet sources accounted for 91% of all fake news related to COVID. Among countries, India was found to be the top source of misinformation (18%), followed by Brazil (9%) and the United States (8.6%). The amount of misinformation was also highest in India.
In fact, misinformation is the emerging issue in India’s social media-dominated media landscape. Over 400 million Indians have access to the internet on digital devices like smartphones. People with an affordable phone and broadband connection have access to news and information from different digital sources, but are not equipped to assess the veracity of the claims typically made in these messages.
According to the latest data, Indians spend an average of about 2.36 hours on social media every day. The number of social media users in the country is increasing by leaps and bounds owing to the deep penetration of internet connectivity. The number of Internet users has risen to 658 million, or about 47% of the total population. Of this number, mobile Internet users represent approximately 600 million. The drop in the price of smartphones has led to a massive increase in the use of mobile phones. The availability of Internet connection at very low prices is another factor in the large-scale increase in Internet subscribers.
The country’s higher internet penetration rate, increased social media consumption, and lack of digital user culture and regulation have led to increased vulnerability to misinformation on social media. The pandemic has amplified the flow of unverified information – both unintentional (misinformation) and deliberate (misinformation).
The spread of disinformation poses a huge threat to the lives and way of life of ordinary people, as evidenced by various studies. During the pandemic, misinformation related to fake cures and conspiracy theories caused panic, anxiety, false hope, mental trauma and fear as the virus spread. Due to the spread of fake health information, the trade in fake health services and fake medicines has also increased. The most widespread impact of misinformation which was seen during and after the lockdown – suffered different types of socio-psychological impact in different parts of the country. The multiple languages and diverse socio-cultural environment made solving the problem more critical.
In August, a senior World Health Organization official noted that misinformation about COVID and vaccines was preventing people from getting vaccinated, leading to an increase in cases around the world.
Digital media literacy is a way to help internet users in India identify and ignore misinformation and misinformation, especially in regional languages and rural areas.
One such media literacy training program, run by the FactShala India Media Literacy Network, was conducted in 28 states across the country. In early 2021, the Center for Media Studies (CMS), an independent social and media research think tank, conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the impact of FactShala’s training program. This evaluation study also attempted to determine the impacts of floating misinformation on social media.
Many respondents to the study recalled that the misinformation had impacted their health, community harmony in some parts of the country and also generated fear, anxiety and false hope in many of them. The spread of misinformation makes many people anxious, depressed or emotionally drained. Respondents cited examples of posts that impacted their physical and mental health due to belief in false information on social media.
A young woman explained that she did not isolate herself for several days, even after testing positive for COVID, because she had read an article claiming that “if you can hold your breath for 30 seconds, you are not not positive for COVID”. The study revealed many such cases where either treatment or preventive measures were delayed or stopped after reading misinformation or misinformation that appeared on social media. Many messages disseminated information against vaccination. Few respondents admitted to having read the messages that you can also die after vaccination. This created fear in some people and stimulated vaccine hesitancy.
Community disharmony was the other major impact reported by respondents from Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. Posts containing misinformation related to employment or cancellation of exams or promotion to the next class have created false hopes and anxiety among students and job seekers. After reading and believing the post appeared on different social media platforms, many people suffered financial losses. During interviews, many respondents admitted to being duped and suffering financial loss after reading about money laundering or cheap airline tickets.
Since there is so much information on social media and online in general, identifying useful and accurate sources is deceptively difficult for average users. Media literacy interventions play an important role as citizens do not verify the accuracy and authenticity of information online, mainly due to the high volume of messages and the low level of awareness of misinformation, disinformation and fact-checking.
There are small, stand-alone interventions targeting students or institutions, but they tend to focus either on fact-checking and verification training, or on critical thinking. To make people informed and safe online, an effective mechanism to increase information literacy and build resilience to misinformation and disinformation within communities is needed.