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More Covid-19 disinformation targets India than any other country. Here’s how to spot it
From adverts for sham herbal remedies to false stories about religious groups, many Indian citizens face a tidal wave of Covid-19 disinformation every day on their phones. Although fake news is prevalent in many countries, newly-published research has found that India is the most-afflicted country in the world.
Study author Sayeed al-Zaman, an academic at Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh and the University of Alberta in Canada, analysed 9,657 pieces of misinformation originating from 138 different countries to better understand how fake news spreads around the world.
India, which has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, was home to more than 15 percent of the examined misinformation. When al-Zaman looked at fake news spread on social media alone, he found that an even greater proportion was published in India: nearly 19 percent.
So how can internet users in India protect themselves from false and misleading stories designed to scare? Health Studio has debunked some of the most prominent rumours to help you equip yourself against dangerous, often frightening fake news.
Around the world, numerous home remedies, drugs and supplements have been touted as cures without valid scientific evidence, particularly when effective treatments are scarce. But taking medicine that hasn’t been properly evaluated can be dangerous. Not only might it stop you from taking the drugs that do work, but some of these “cures” can actually cause harm.
On Indian social media, drugs including alcohol and cannabis, as well as Ayurvedic medicine and homeopathy, have been promoted as cures for Covid-19. But there is no evidence to suggest any of these treatments are effective. In some cases, it’s likely bad actors are promoting untested remedies to make money, rather than to heal.
Although alcohol can be used to kill bacteria and viruses on surfaces, it doesn’t have the same effect inside the body. In fact, drinking alcohol can weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to defend itself against Covid-19. During lockdowns, it can also worsen your mental health, and encourage risk-taking behaviour and even violence. Long-term, alcohol abuse is also linked to numerous health problems from heart disease to cancer.
Misleading news articles have claimed that weed can “cure” Covid-19, but this has little basis in science. Some researchers are studying whether or not compounds found in the cannabis plant could help combat the disease. But this project is in its infancy and has not led to the development of any evidence-based Covid-19 treatments. Online content that claims otherwise is misleading at best, an outright lie at worst.
There are plenty of reasons to be more cautious about cannabis use during the pandemic. Scientists have warned that smoking the drug can make individuals more vulnerable to respiratory diseases. Given that cannabis is often consumed socially, with multiple users smoking from the same source, it may directly facilitate the spread of the disease. Users may mistake a Covid-19 cough for a smoker’s cough and fail to take precautions like getting tested or self-isolating.
Although India’s government has promoted Ayurvedic medicine as a key element of disease prevention and treatment, there is no scientific evidence to support this. Ayurveda is a traditional form of medicine based on the principle of balancing the body’s “elements”: air, fire, water, earth, and ether. In addition to modifying diet and lifestyle, practitioners may recommend herbal remedies and surgery to “rebalance” the body and treat disease.
But the use of Ayurvedic treatments for Covid-19 has not been tested in large-scale clinical trials. As a result, the government’s endorsement of the practice has been heavily criticised by medical doctors in India.
Relying on Ayurvedic supplements and other alternative treatments is risky for several reasons. Firstly, there is no solid evidence to show they offer any benefit against Covid-19, so should not be used as an alternative to modern medicine. Articles that suggest otherwise are likely to be misrepresenting the facts.
In addition, some Ayurvedic products have been found to be contaminated with toxic ingredients like lead, arsenic and mercury. Some doctors are also concerned that the products themselves could increase a user’s risk of liver damage.
Similarly, the Indian government has endorsed homeopathy as a means of boosting the immune system during the pandemic. Originating in Germany in the 1700s, homeopathy involves taking highly diluted plant and mineral supplements with the aim of stimulating the body’s healing processes. False reports that the UK’s Prince Charles used both homeopathy and Ayurveda to treat his own Covid-19 have fuelled the use of both of these alternative medicines in India.
In reality, homeopathy is a highly controversial system that numerous scientific studies have found to be ineffective. In fact, the authors of a major 2015 review of some 1,800 homeopathy research papers concluded there was “no good quality evidence to support the claim that [the system] is effective in treating health conditions.”
There’s no good quality evidence to show that homeopathic remedies can help treat, prevent or cure Covid-19 either. Delaying modern medical treatment in favour of these alternatives can be dangerous.
As well as health-themed disinformation, Sayeed al-Zaman encountered lots of fake news that played on religious tensions. In India, he explained, there are long-standing disputes between the Hindu majority and minority religious groups like Muslims, who often face discrimination. During the pandemic, articles have falsely accused Muslims of refusing to take Covid-19 tests and even deliberately spreading the disease.
Some of this content also plays on other political tensions. Several articles encouraged anti-Pakistani or anti-American sentiment, for example, with some suggesting former president Donald Trump engaged in Islamic prayer while battling Covid-19.
These religious and geopolitical claims are designed to stoke fear and resentment by placing blame for the pandemic on particular groups of people, often for political gain. In reality, the idea that Muslims are deliberately transmitting Covid-19 is a dangerous conspiracy theory that isn’t supported by any evidence.
Growing social media use
It’s hard to know exactly why fake news like this is so common in India, Al-Zaman says. But growing social media use coupled with lower levels of internet literacy in the country are likely fuelling the spread.
Although it can be hard to know what to believe online, there are ways to help protect yourself from disinformation. “Cross-checking information, the most fundamental task in journalism, is a good [means of verification],” al-Zaman told Health Studio.
This means comparing information from different sources to see if it matches up. If multiple websites publish similar claims, for example, this may give more credence to a story. But it’s still no guarantee the information is accurate. Bad actors have been known to post different versions of the same content across multiple sites to make their articles seem more legitimate. Checking a claim against a fact-checking website like Snopes can help you quickly verify or debunk claims you’re not sure about.
“Source verification is another basic way to learn about the reliability of the source and information,” al-Zaman said.
By checking who has posted a piece of information, you can better judge its reliability. If a claim is published on a trustworthy news website, for example, it’s more likely to be reliable than if it’s made in a post from an unverified social media account.
If you see a link on social media, you can look at the URL to try and figure out the source. If you haven’t heard of the website, a quick Google search can help you find out more about it. As disinformation expert Seb Cubbon previously told Health Studio: “Try and work out, who is behind this website? What do they do? How credible are they?”