At a time when the country reels from the compounded effects of this devastating pandemic, social media abounds with falsehoods: unscientific claims that cow urine can prevent covid-19, baseless allegations that Muslims spread the virus and unsubstantiated narratives that Western media is making up death tolls, among others. Social media groups have morphed into havens of misinformation.
Covid-19 misinformation in India appears to fall primarily into two categories: fake miracle cures, and conspiracy theories about the origin and spread of the virus. Fake cures include beliefs that home remedies such as garlic, steam inhalation or Ayurveda — an alternative medicine system with roots in traditional Indian philosophy — can cure the virus. Beliefs in miracle cures are dangerous if even a fraction of those succumbing to them ignore best practices such as social distancing. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories, including narratives that scapegoat minorities, can increase malice between social groups, paving the way for further polarization and violence.
What makes this misinformation so easy to spread and so difficult to correct? Online information in developing countries such as India is disproportionately consumed on encrypted chat-based applications such as WhatsApp. India is WhatsApp’s biggest market, and its encryption means that no one has access to read, filter and analyze text messages. This feature makes tracing the source or spread of a message close to impossible, effectively turning WhatsApp into a black hole of misinformation.
Though encryption protects privacy, it also means, critically, that fact-checking at a mass level is near impossible. The platform cannot label misinformation as false, it cannot take down incorrect messages, and it cannot identify those who create or share misinformation. As a result, the volume of misinformation in India likely always exceeds efforts to counter it.
But humans are also inherently vulnerable to misinformation. We tend to seek out information that reinforces our preferences, argue against information that contradicts those preferences and find information that fits our preexisting beliefs more convincing than information that opposes our worldview. This means that strong partisans in India may be more likely to believe stories that benefit their party, even if those stories are false. It also suggests that the desire to further political causes can lead to perceptions that any information not in line with those causes must be wrong. This inherent tendency makes the misinformation problem a particularly difficult one to address and solve.
So what can be done to correct misinformation in India? While some evidence shows that WhatsApp users correcting their peers for posting falsehoods is effective at combating misinformation, the pandemic calls for more creative solutions. One idea is to use unusual sources to fact-check fake stories. Research in the U.S. context shows unexpected sources are more effective at correcting misinformation, such as when Democrats contradict Democrats rather than when Republicans contradict Democrats. Applying this logic to India’s case would suggest, for example, that religious leaders debunking religiously motivated medical misinformation might perhaps be an effective solution.
But in the context of India, where elites themselves spread falsehoods and misinformation often stems from government-allied sources, the problem is compounded. Recently, a state governed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said it would hand out the herbal medicine to covid-19 patients. When those in power are complicit in creating and spreading falsehoods, countering them is a challenging prospect. India is not just experiencing a health crisis; it is undergoing an information crisis of massive proportions. And this very misinformation, much of which has tried to convince Indians that the country’s covid-19 issues aren’t as bad as they are, may help keep the government in power through the next election.
The elite-driven spread of falsehoods in India during a disastrous pandemic underscores that the Indian government has a misinformation supply-side advantage. Come election season, this may be a problem for electoral accountability. And as India’s death count during the pandemic surpasses the 300,000 mark, the epidemic of false information that accompanies it threatens more lives. Combating misinformation in India has never been a more pressing concern.