In a pandemic, the power of the rumour

Health information, specifically on social media, is often published, shared, and re-shared, irrespective of its veracity, frequently leading to the spread of misinformation and rumours under the guise of truth
Representational image. (Bloomberg File) PREMIUM
Representational image. (Bloomberg File)
Updated on May 26, 2021 03:50 PM IST
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ByPayal S Kapoor

On average, in 2019, Indian internet users spent close to 2.5 hours on social media everyday. Average usage went up to 4.3 hours during the first phase of the 2020 nationwide lockdown, later stabilising to 3.3 hours by the end of June 2020. For many Indians, who were isolated and confined to their homes, social media outlets such as WhatsApp and Facebook enabled convenient and seamless access and dissemination of health information, including information related to curbs and restrictions.

Yet, health information, specifically on social media, is often published, shared, and re-shared, irrespective of its veracity, frequently leading to the spread of misinformation and rumours under the guise of truth. Covid-19 is the first pandemic in history where technology and social media are being used on a massive scale, and widespread dissemination of health rumours has been rampant, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to also call the pandemic an “infodemic”.

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Health-related rumours spread fast and not only hinder individual display of desirable health behaviour but also prevent the seamless implementation of institutional efforts to manage public health. To be sure, a pandemic gives rise to confusion, ambiguity, anxiety, and uncertainty, which, in turn, may lead to increased transmission of health rumours. The accuracy, veracity, and perceived credibility of the source are ignored, more so on social media where users are already cognitively overloaded with too much information.

As such, studies find that during a crisis (e.g. natural disaster, terror attack, global pandemic), sharing rumours works like a coping mechanism. People draw a false sense of relief, such that anxiety or fears associated with the uncertain situation is momentarily reduced. But in the long-run, during a pandemic, prior research finds that health rumours, exchanged in a community, can instil fear.

One such fear is about the Covid-19 vaccine. Vaccine hesitancy, in 2019, was named as one of the top 10 threats to global health by WHO. This was announced after the global uptake rates for the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine slipped to 85%, significantly lower the required target of 95%. Further, the presence of anti-vaxxers, a cult across the world that shares the belief that vaccines cause more harm than good, and opposes vaccines for a variety of reasons including religious beliefs, indicates that these ideas exist even though there is evidence to the contrary. In the United States (US), half the population is now fully vaccinated. But survey-based findings reveal that close to 25% refuses to get jabbed altogether.

While India’s core crisis today is vaccine shortage, and data on hesitancy is inadequate, it would be a mistake to ignore the role of the latter as supplies shore up. This stems from distrust in health institutions and experts, misunderstanding related to herd immunity, fear related to rapid vaccine development, and new side effects, supplemented and reinforced by conspiracy theories and misinformation circulating widely on social media.

Technology-enabled rumour dissemination can conflict with public health and safety interventions during a pandemic. Since the internet and social media are important sources for health information, governments and health agencies must establish an engaging web presence to debunk misinformation and fill the knowledge gaps. Some of this is already happening, but a lot more is desirable.

Engaging celebrities and social media influencers can motivate people who are less eager to take the vaccine. To be sure, social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp (to name a few) have been proactive in adding features that allow users to access verified information, but they must double their efforts in flagging misinformation and rapidly removing heath rumours.

If the government is to be believed, India’s current crisis of shortage will ease in the next few months. Then, the challenge will not be in supply, but ensuring that citizens understand that a vaccine is the most effective protective mechanism that is currently known and available. Putting the rumours to rest is a national imperative.

Payal S Kapoor is associate professor (Marketing), FORE School of Management, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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Saturday, November 27, 2021