By: priyam nayak
September 27 2021
Priya Kumari* is employed as a domestic worker at one of the upscale neighborhoods in the city of Ranchi in Jharkhand. She has received both doses of the Covishield vaccine. At 30 years old, she is illiterate. It was her employer who booked vaccination slots for her on the CoWin portal and took her to the vaccination centers after they were able to convince Kumari that the vaccines were safe and could safeguard her from severe disease.
“I had doubts about the safety of the vaccine – at one point I was even convinced that the vaccine is a weapon to kill people,” she said. “My husband had received a few such videos on WhatsApp which highlighted how vaccines are a part of a global conspiracy and that people should not get the jabs.”
Despite being illiterate, Kumari has familiarized herself with the nuances of using a smartphone. However, she shares the phone with her husband and two teenage children. She also acknowledges that it is impossible for her and her family members to differentiate between credible information and misinformation or disinformation.
In early 2021, when the central government began the COVID-19 vaccination drive, hoaxes, doctored videos and fear-mongering soon emerged as major impediments. Indeed, within hours of announcing that two vaccines were approved for emergency use, the Drug Controller General of India had to dismiss rumors that they caused infertility. As leading Indian virologist Gagandeep Kang told Mint, false claims about vaccines causing infertility have previously deterred India’s immunization efforts for polio, measles, and rubella.
Doubts and fears about the vaccines were and continue to be more prevalent in rural areas. World Bank data shows that rural India is home to more than 65 percent of the country’s population, amounting to approximately 900 million people.
The number of doses administered across nine major cities – New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, Thane, and Nagpur – was the same as the number of doses administered in 114 of India's least developed districts – collectively home to about 176 million people.
A survey on misinformation in 20 districts of eastern and central UP, and 12 districts in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh each, conducted by Video Volunteers for The Quint, revealed that overall 26 percent of people believed that COVID is a government conspiracy, but among those who refuse to take the vaccine, 45 percent believed that COVID is a government conspiracy. An analysis published by Reuters in June 2021 revealed that the number of doses administered across nine major cities – New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, Thane, and Nagpur – was the same as the number of doses administered in 114 of India's least developed districts – collectively home to about 176 million people.
Kumari’s experiences exemplify the problem of misinformation in small towns and rural India, rather than in areas where literacy levels are higher, economic opportunities are abundant, and gender discrimination is less pronounced. I spoke to women working from three grassroots organizations actively involved in combating vaccine hesitancy and fake news about the pandemic in rural areas to understand the numerous intricacies of the problem of misinformation in India.
One of the main problems with misinformation in rural areas is that there’s unequal access to good information, and it’s based on gender. A 2020 report by the GSM Association, a trade body that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide, stated women in India are 28 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 56 percent less likely than men to use mobile internet and this gap is wider in rural areas.
Sarayu Natrajan, a co-founder of the Aapti Institute, a research institution specializing in the intersection of technology and society, says, “It is worth keeping in mind that women's access to the digital world is mediated in many instances by the society and patriarchal forms of control over women. So what they would like to see, and what they do end up consuming, are likely very different.”
“The major sources of information for women are their family members, neighbors, friends and relatives. A very small section of members get their information from social media.”
Some organizations working on other humanitarian issues have had to adapt to the environment of misinformation. Anjali Rao Koppala, a senior communications associate at SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) Co-operative Federation tells me, “The major sources of information for women are their family members, neighbors, friends, and relatives. A very small section of members gets their information from social media. When we say believing, women and men are equally prone to believe in misinformation or fake news. It is that women have less access to first-hand information in general, most of the information they have is all in the form of grapevine and conversations with people. Also, the majority of the women tend to believe what the male persons of their household believe in.”
Founded in 1972, SEWA is a national union of 1.8 million informal women workers in 18 states that has played a pivotal role in the economic empowerment of women in India. Since the start of the pandemic in India last year, SEWA has been at the forefront of providing immediate and long-term relief work to its members and their families – from the distribution of oxygen concentrators, oximeters, food, health kits, cash transfer schemes, to providing mental health support and conducting vaccination drives. To get more people vaccinated, SEWA has also had to amp up efforts at dispelling unfounded fears about the vaccines among community members.
With the abysmal digital literacy levels, and the fact that in most households family members share cell phones with the male members who have a say in how they should be used, these women have found themselves pushed to a corner.
Naseem Shaikh, who works as an associate program director at Swayam Shiksha Prayog (SSP), a non-profit based in Pune, Maharashtra, corroborates that in rural areas, women access information mostly through men and they rarely question its veracity. “Last year, when the government imposed the nationwide lockdown, cases of domestic violence went up drastically,” she explains. “SSP workers would reach out to the victims and their families to ensure their safety. We realized there were so many women in the villages in Osmanabad district who had zero knowledge about what they could do in such situations. Owing to the lockdown, stepping out of the house to seek help was not an option. What with the abysmal digital literacy levels and the fact that in most households family members share cell phones with the male members who have a say in how they should be used, these women found themselves pushed to a corner. In one instance, we saved a woman who had run off to a nearby village to commit suicide. After that, we organized campaigns with the support of the panchayat officials and neighboring police stations to educate women about their rights and how they could seek help in such situations by using their mobile phones. The menfolk, of course, weren’t too happy about it.”
While women in rural regions appear to be at a greater disadvantage when it comes to verifying and accessing information first-hand, it is easier to make them believe correct information, according to Nitika Kakkar, senior program manager at SMART, a non-profit that runs Radio Mewat which is a community radio station in Nuh, Haryana considered to be one of the most backward districts in the country.
“I would say it is linked to the patriarchal social structures—where men believe they cannot be wrong—whereas women are always unsure and open to change their minds if anything comes from authority.”
“Our experience has been contrary. Men are more prone to being misinformed and usually propagate the same to the members of their family, including women. However, what is most interesting is that when given the correct information, women are more willing to accept it and correct themselves than men. Men tend to hold on to the wrong notion and information and tend to be stubborn about it, rather than discuss it or reason with it or believe it. I would say it is linked to the patriarchal social structures—where men believe they cannot be wrong—whereas women are always unsure and open to change their minds if anything comes from authority,” says Kakkar.
Poor connectivity, lack of smartphones, and lack of good quality local-language media make accessing quality information difficult in many parts of rural India. As a result, quality news consumption is a luxury, and misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines has been rampant.
“Reaching out to members in remote areas is also a challenge due to poor network connectivity. While in-person meetings could still be relied on in the pre-pandemic world, they have also now become a thing of the past, making connecting to members more challenging,” Koppala told me.
Local NGOs have avoided excessive reliance on digital channels, as it better addresses misinformation ecosystems in rural India. In rural areas, digital solutions to misinformation can be of little help owing to low literacy levels, the prevalence of age-old myths and superstitions and the close-knit structure of communities that creates confirmation bias because most community members access information from the same sources. Building trust and familiarity through real-world interactions are of paramount importance for countering misinformation and disinformation in rural demography.
Radio Mewat provides an interesting case study in how to tap into community rather than technology. In August 2020, the Hindu reported that only 27 percent of households in Nuh had TV sets and only 20 percent of students had mobile phones. Nuh is believed to be the birthplace of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic organization that was castigated nationally for accelerating the spread of COVID-19 in the country in 2020. The ensuing coverage led to acute stigmatization of the Muslim community in India.
Kakkar explains, “While even informed and educated individuals have fallen prey to misinformation about COVID-19 in some form or other, the issue was compounded in a place like Mewat. Being a Muslim majority community with low levels of education, there is a lack of trust that in the mainstream media and its messaging. In the initial phase, the majority of the population in Mewat considered COVID-19 to be a hoax and a way for the government to implement excessive curbs on the general population.”
The problem worsened when members of the Jamaat returned to Nuh and community members started being subjected to discrimination. That’s when Radio Mewat stepped in to address myths and fake news around COVID-19.
Kakkar says, “Our team set out to scan the internet to look for all the myths and verify it through credible sources. It also picked up material from the MoHFW and WHO websites and developed it into radio programs that informed and assured people. At the same time, with support from UNESCO, we translated our scripts into 7-8 languages and shared them with then operational 290 community radio stations. The radio targeted misinformation around COVID both through broadcasts and through on-ground activities. The team also interacted with the community members to identify their fears and sources of disinformation around the pandemic and used the radio to counter it with facts.”
“Each group has 5-6 women who are trained in digital literacy skills and checking the veracity of information also. We only trained women because most of them are at home and thus it is easier for them to further the chain of learning among their family members.”
In Osmanabad, Shaikh also adopted a similar approach when false information started to hamper inoculation efforts in the villages. “People were very scared of the vaccines – some thought they would die if they were vaccinated. Also, booking slots for vaccination on the CoWin app was a problem because not everyone has smartphones. So we created Sakhi Task Force groups in each village – each group has 5-6 women who are trained in digital literacy skills and checking the veracity of information also. We only trained women because most of them are at home and thus it is easier for them to further the chain of learning among their family members. They then created WhatsApp groups for their respective villages and added the gram panchayat members and villagers to it. If anyone comes across any information on WhatsApp or on other portals, they first have to get the information verified by a task force member, following which the information is shared on the group along with a warning if it is fake.”
On the other hand, SEWA has embraced a model which allows the members of the organization to first understand misinformation trends so that specificity is maintained when debunking those. Koppola says, “We designed a vaccine hesitancy survey to know what fears people have been harboring. SEWA’s teleconsultation initiative facilitated the process of doctors breaking myths about vaccination and encouraging people to register for the same.”
“The major challenge we face while making people aware of the dangers of fake news is trust,” Koppala says. “When one would inform people about any particular piece of information or news being fake, their first thoughts tend to be – we too could be lying. It becomes important to build trust first. At SEWA, we have created a system so that community leaders (aagewans) are in regular contact with the community members and are considered as trusted and reliable sources of information, which makes the members feel secure.”
Fact checking is a fairly new phenomenon in India, and most of the fact checking portals run by mainstream media organizations publish content in English. In post-independence India, fluency in English was a marker of social standing as education in English medium institutions was unaffordable for the majority. While English medium education has become a bit more accessible, fluency in English is mostly an urban phenomenon and is often class-dependent. This makes it harder for a large section of the population, especially women, to find and consume correct information.
“The vocabulary used is loaded with jargon and academic language. This itself is exclusionary and prohibits the majority of the Indian population to access the material.”
Kakkar says, “The main issue with regard to the available knowledge-base on countering fake news or busting misinformation in India is that most of it is in English, and the vocabulary used is loaded with jargon and academic language. This itself is exclusionary and prohibits the majority of the Indian population to access the material. However, this does not mean that people who are not well-versed in English do not have the critical thinking ability to differentiate between accurate and fake information once they are informed about the same or vice versa. What is essential to battle the disinfodemic is that the conversations and information about this topic need to be available in multiple languages and dialects so that people can access and understand it. The countermeasures also need to keep up with the linguistic diversity of the country.”
According to Koppola, language is not a factor when it comes to the spread of misinformation; rather it is the next stage in the misinformation dissemination process where women find themselves in a worse position. “It often does not happen that women take active efforts from their end to visit websites to check their facts. Thus, the websites or information portals that use English as a language are something that community members are often not even acknowledging. Nevertheless, making active efforts to make reliable information member-friendly, by having the same information in multiple languages can facilitate its spread as well, and can act as an accelerating agent in combating the existing misinformation."
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.