#Gender Fact

How Online Misinformation On COVID-19 Impacts Women Disproportionately

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Misinformation On COVID-19 Impacts Women Disproportionately: Misinformation has a disproportionate impact on women in rural India, but community-based initiatives can help to solve this pressing public health issue.

My 65-year-old paternal aunt is glued to the television set every evening. At 5 pm, she tunes in to Zee Bangla to watch Didi No 1, a reality show where housewives from across the state of West Bengal compete against each other in a series of entertaining tasks – quizzes, charades, and races similar to the kindergarten versions of the lemon and spoon ones.

In the break, there was a commercial for an immunity-boosting chyawanprash, whose benefits supposedly included lowering your risk of catching the dreaded coronavirus. My aunt turned to me, her fact-checker niece, and said that she saw such advertisements every day, that her WhatsApp groups were flooded with similar claims, and that even Bengali news channels have been running dedicated segments on home remedies for preventing and curing COVID-19.

“I feel so confused,” she said. “There is no way for me to know the truth.”

My aunt is the primary caregiver to her husband, who has been bedridden due to the debilitating onslaught of Parkinson’s. As such, she has been especially worried about COVID-19. The deluge of information from all corners – WhatsApp groups, neighbours, family members and regional news channels – has made her jittery.

I can’t resist comparing her with her brother – my father. At 61, he is adept at using the internet and its paraphernalia for his day-to-day needs – so much so that he even knows how to build a website from scratch. Perhaps more importantly, through the course of the pandemic, he has easily picked up from his fact-checker daughter the basics of sieving the truth from piles of information. My father was educated in an English-medium school and had the privilege to study at one of the best MBA colleges in the country. On the other hand, my aunt’s education in a Bengali medium school was merely an afterthought; my grandparents did not feel the need to spend money on an education for someone who would eventually get confined to the domestic realm. Though my aunt is learning to use a smartphone and tries to get things done virtually, she doesn’t speak or read English – something that makes online life infinitely harder.

Social Media COVID helpline

The fact that some in my family have been able to verify information throughout the pandemic is a consequence of our economic abilities and social standing; it is a privilege. My parents never imposed any restrictions on me owing to my gender.

Often, women have to wrestle control from the opposite gender, especially in rural areas – sometimes there’s only one phone in the home, and it stays in the man’s pocket. Information percolates in vastly different ways in rural scenarios as compared to urban settings where digital literacy levels are significantly higher.

But when I tried to look deeper into how gender has a bearing on the spread of misinformation, I stumbled upon a few women who have been shaping the discourse around tackling misinformation in rural India. Radio Mewat, SEWA Bharat, and Swayam Shikshan Prayog have been providing all kinds of relief to various rural communities during the pandemic and added tackling fake news to their mammoth list of responsibilities.

Radio Mewat, a community radio organisation that I spoke to, has been continuously targeting vaccine misinformation through on-air programming, narrowcasting, community events, and discussions with people of the area. The station brought local credible voices, such as the CMO, ASHA, and Anganwadi workers, doctors from medical college, and the district COVID Task Force to talk about the vaccine and its various aspects, including the short-term side-effects to help reduce vaccine hesitancy.

Indeed, Radio Mewat, SEWA Bharat, and Swayam Shikshan Prayog had solutions that reflected their empathy, while acknowledging the limitations of the rural populace – the lack of infrastructure, the lack of economic opportunities.

Low literacy levels, the prevalence of myths and superstitions require extra efforts for trust to be built and this is where the sense of sisterhood comes into play. Anti-vax sentiments are a fairly nascent phenomenon in India and the pandemic has acted as a propellant but the scenario is nowhere comparable to the established anti-vax movements in other countries.

What also stood out in my conversations with these women was the sense of camaraderie and kinship that they have for the women in their communities. This personal touch and familiarity make it easier for them to help members of the community reject falsehoods.

Anti-vax sentiments are a fairly nascent phenomenon in India and the pandemic has acted as a propellant but the scenario is nowhere comparable to the established anti-vax movements in other countries.

Fighting misinformation is a public health issue. Inequality can deprive women of access to technology and education, which often means they have less power to resist misinformation about the pandemic, which can put them and their families at risk. We often see health misinformation hijack community networks to spread rumours, but what I found reporting this piece is that the same community can serve as positive agents of change for women across India. Some organisations are already tapping into those same strong networks of women to inoculate them against the misleading and false WhatsApp forwards. As long as trusted people can be involved, they can vaccinate a community against the infodemic.

Priyam Nayak who is a Disinformation Analyst for Logically. The views expressed are the author’s own.