Influencing misinformation: Why the Indian government wants health influencers to be more accountable

Influencing misinformation: Why the Indian government wants health influencers to be more accountable

By: umme kulsum&
April 14 2023

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Influencing misinformation: Why the Indian government wants health influencers to be more accountable

The Indian government is mandating social media influencers that promote health and wellness-related products, tips, and procedures to disclose their qualifications to improve the reliability of health-related advice. In a burgeoning wellness industry, particularly post the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for regulation has arisen from influencers directly impacting customers' decisions.

Secretary of the Department of Consumer Affairs Rohit Kumar Singh in a recent interview with Business Standard this week said, "If you are saying this food is good or bad, or that this medicine is good, you must be qualified and disclose that you are qualified to say that. Otherwise, it can be majorly misleading."

Early this year, official guidelines by the Department of Consumer Affairs asked celebrities and social media influencers to include explicit disclaimers in their endorsement posts, clearly explaining their connection to the brand and what promotional content they create. The guidelines are meant to prevent anyone from misleading their audience while recommending or endorsing any particular product and maintain transparency.

Millions consuming misleading content

With increasing relevance and being perceived as knowledgeable in the field, social media influencers can act as conduits in spreading health-related misinformation.

For instance, a well-known social media influencer, Vivek Mittal, aka Fit Tuber, with seven million subscribers on YouTube, has been criticized for spreading incomplete information that misses out on reliable scientific information. The YouTuber does not list his qualifications on his page and calls himself a “fitness enthusiast.” While talking about cooking utensils in a YouTube video, Mittal says nonstick pans containing Teflon coatings release toxic chemicals into the air. However, the information is misleading. According to Healthline, teflon is a safe and stable compound. Only when the temperatures are above 500°F, teflon coatings on nonstick cookware break down and release toxic chemicals into the air. The average cooking temperature ranges around 170°F. Temperature above 500°F is considered too hot. 

Screenshot of video from Fit Tuber’s page making misleading claims about harmful effects of using teflon cooking utensils.

In another video, the YouTuber promotes Ayurvedic tablets that can replace allopathic pills. The video has over three million views and has links to various Ayurvedic medications in the description box that he discloses are not sponsored. Under the guise of promoting natural treatments, unqualified influencers promote a wide range of remedies - the new regulations assures more accountability. 

Screenshot of Fit Tuber’s video titled ‘10 Safe & Useful Ayurvedic Tablets to Replace Allopathic Pills (Instant Relief).’

Influencers accelerate the spread of information compared to established media outlets, since it allows quick sharing of peerless, cost-free information online. Social media influencers also use hashtags such as #Fitspiration, a well-liked social media trend that features images and advice about exercising and healthy eating, which often has unsubstantiated content. Many push 'detox teas,' 'healing essential oils,' and other products with no known advantages and unaddressed side effects.

In March 2020, Mridul Madhok, a popular Instagram and TikTok influencer, falsely claimed that "coronavirus could only stay airborne for a maximum of eight hours, adding that since people had been asked to stay home for 14 hours on 'Janata Curfew' (22 March), from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., the virus would die on 23 March." The Quint had then debunked such content posted by him. In 2020, false information regarding COVID-19 was quickly gaining traction on social media. Before TikTok was banned in India, influencers on TikTok were fuelling incorrect information about the cause and cure of COVID-19. Bengaluru Police and Kerala Police were raising awareness by engaging in social media policing in order to combat false information. 

Similarly, Satvic Movement is a channel by health influencers, Harshvardhan and Subah, who post health-related content and speak from personal experience. The 'about' section on their YouTube page does not specify their qualifications and has more than five million subscribers. The channel has drawn a lot of flak for providing inaccurate health information. In a recent Instagram video, they asserted that toothpaste includes chemicals that can harm health. However, this is incorrect. Propylene glycol and fluoride, the ingredients in toothpaste, are of a safer grade and completely harmless

Will regulation lead to responsible promotions?

Social media influencers also promote rapid weight-loss diets, which might cause more harm than good. No one diet works for everyone, with each person needing a unique diet based on their medical condition.

Senior nutritionist Usha Sri from Hyderabad's AIG hospital told The News Minute, "Do not believe quacks, those who do not have any qualification to prescribe diets and recommend diets on social media. Such suggestions should be avoided." 

Influencers may both threaten and promote public health. Some influencers convey a sense of connection that may motivate their audience to adopt a healthy way of life. On the other hand, some influencers lack the expertise required to offer trustworthy advice on health and wellness. Experts advise individuals to be cautious of the content influencers and celebrities post on topics they lack knowledge about. Instead, people should speak with certified medical professionals who have clinical experience.

Celebrities and social media influencers alike have acted as catalysts for the boom in the wellness and nutraceuticals industry. Still, the impact these regulations will have on the market - or the type of content that they will be allowed to promote and post - is still unknown. The announcement does not delve into what it means for accounts focused on topics such as skin care, healthy food and fitness, or celebrities promoting wellness brands. For Dr. Cyriac Philips, popularly known as 'TheLiverDoc, ' the effectiveness of the regulation is equally important, considering certification from illegitimate organizations can be purchased easily, the doctor wrote in a Twitter thread.

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before