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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Myths and Misinformation are spreading

When the pandemic emerged in 2020, the World Health Organization noted an infodemic -a massive spread of misinformation, disinformation, rumors, lies, and misunderstandings that spread like a contagion.

The infodemic exhibited virus-like traits, going from one person to another, evolving and mutating as they spread across the information ecosystem. It spread mistrust about vaccines and treatments to combat COVID-19 that drove many vulnerable people into making harmful, life-changing decisions.

Disinformation is mainstream

Today, disinformation narratives are mainstream. They continue to spread across digital media and in-language platforms, infecting everything from public health issues and politics to lifestyle choices.

These problematic online messages manifest in different forms as misinformation, disinformation, rumors, conspiracies, even hate speech, and junk news.

Whatever the distinctions between them, the overarching intention is to mislead and deceive people.

Ways to counter disinformation

At an EMS briefing on Feb. 8, Cameron Hickey, CEO of the National Conference on Citizenship, and one of the nation’s leading experts in this field, led an update on how to identify and counter disinformation. The aim of his work is to understand and eventually tackle viral info to mitigate its impact.

Hickey’s team has tracked these platforms to monitor myths and disinformation and developed groundbreaking tools like Junkipedia and the establishment of the people-powered misinformation monitoring program, the Civic Listening Corps, to challenge and countered misinformation with facts.

Hickey shared insights on how to identify examples of dangerous theories, especially about COVID-19 vaccines, boosters, treatments, and related public health issues.

Myths, disinformation and clues

One can garner several clues from information spread on social media rhetoric by influencers and public officials by their form, tone, and content said Hickey.

Fear-mongering messages based on manipulation are designed to be scary or angry to get people to change their behavior.

Conspiracy theories that now are incredibly mainstream appear in many forms. Usually, they reference powerful bogeymen with ulterior, bad motives.

In other Internet falsehoods, something that may be technically true could be incredibly misleading if it’s shared without proper context. For example, a statistic taken out of context can seem dangerous when we don’t know which part of the whole the statistic represents.

Pseudo-science is fake truth

Hickey cautioned against public health, pseudo-science messages for unproven, cures for COVID 19 which aren’t based on sound research, medical science, or from trusted, authoritative sources.

For example, people believed Ivermectin could mitigate the impact or symptoms of COVID-19, though very little evidence emerged that it does anything meaningful. However, lots of organizations, and social media influencers, including some people with medical degrees, amplified the idea that Ivermectin could treat COVID-19. Subsequently, Hickey’s team observed that consortiums of people who made those arguments were also engaged in programs to sell that medication.

The ‘Disinformation Dozen

The Center for Countering Digital Hate released a report called the ‘Disinformation Dozen’ which documented that the vast majority of misinformation spreading related to COVID-19, was actually originating from a dozen accounts on social media. Research actually shows that there are a few people responsible for a lot of misinformation.

Hickey also warned about messages that allude to concepts about identity, play on stereotypes, and divide even if it’s not overt hate speech. “These kinds of messages are often problematic ones that lead to misunderstandings,” he added.

He advised watching out for faulty logic or logical fallacies, a good example of which is the false equivalence argument which compares similar things and makes the implication that if one is true, then the other should also be true because they’re similar.

In the ever-changing world of public health information, said Hickey, content that is old that might have been true when originally published but may no longer be the case if it’s reshared today.

Myths on social media

With COVID-19, viral misinformation is problematic because as actual viruses spread, false information can instigate people to make very poor decisions that can put their health at risk.

For example, since the pandemic started false theories drove many people to postpone important health care and the ripple effects of those decisions are visible today.

In the United Kingdom, new prescriptions for blood pressure medication fell in 2020 and 2021, because people weren’t being screened for high blood pressure. Now, more people are dying today because of that lack of treatment.

Sudden death by Covid vaccine

Currently, an array of claims state, with no evidence, that the COVID-19 vaccine caused sudden deaths of some celebrities

A Mexican doctor on TikTok, for example, claimed that 40 years of research shows that the mRNA vaccine should not be used in vaccines because it causes high mortality rates.

Data currently shows that a higher-than-average number of people are dying compared to moments in the past. Anti-vaxxers have latched onto this factual information to amplify their concerns about the vaccine, by re-contextualizing the data to suggest that the increases in deaths result from COVID-19 vaccines, though no evidence links those two things together.

For instance, Spanish language and Telugu telegram posts statistics about mortality that are out of context to argue that the excess deaths are driven by the COVID vaccine.

And a Chinese WeChat message quotes an insurance expert and COVID conspiracy theorist claiming that high excess death rates correlate with high COVID vaccination rates.

These two posts were based off of BBC news posts. So, people don’t question the veracity of these claims because they use a legitimate, trustworthy news source as essentially the evidence.

Vaccine detox, climate lockdowns, and bird flu

Vaccine detox is a popular topic within Chinese language communities. False messages suggest that herbs and supplements can remove harmful vaccine ingredients from the body.

Another idea causing problems is the misunderstanding around climate lockdowns which views certain actions that certain cities take in response to climate change concerns as an effort to limit our ability to move.

Hickey noted that more recent problematic messages emerging on their radar focus on health risks with natural gas stoves, concerns about bird flu, and the H5N1 virus.

An inoculation of good information

The only way to protect people from making life-changing decisions based on disinformation is to inoculate them with good information today, said Hickey.
Countering misinformation and disinformation “is really critical to the future of our democracy, and the legitimacy of the information we all use to make the decisions in our daily lives.”

Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash

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Meera Kymal

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...