Messaging app chat brings together a pool for Covid-19 misinformation, health news and top stories


SINGAPORE – Editorial content producer Theophila Toh, 24, is on a mission to connect with members of anti-vaccination messaging groups and fight fake news there.

She was inspired after a 65-year-old woman was hospitalized on October 1 after taking ivermectin – a drug used to treat parasitic infections – on the advice of her friends at church who said it did. could protect her against Covid-19.

Ms Toh said she was worried about her father, 58, who had read about ivermectin online. She said: “The internet is inundated with different information, and sometimes it is all quite overwhelming. And it is difficult to understand what is real and what is not.”

Sunday Times checks have found at least 17 Telegram groups and channels broadcasting misinformation about Covid-19. Telegram groups allow members to exchange information while channels allow their creators to broadcast messages to their subscribers.

The groups have approximately 1,000 to 14,000 members each. Hundreds of messages about the safety and effectiveness of Covid-19 mRNA vaccines are sent daily to these groups and channels, with users sharing a deluge of newspaper articles, videos and anecdotes.

In the newsgroups to which she belongs, Ms. Toh joins in discussions where false information is shared.

She makes a point of responding with empathy and in a non-confrontational manner, then shares information from trusted sources such as peer-reviewed journals.

But academics told the Sunday Times that it was difficult to tackle false information about Covid-19.

This is due to the abundance of conflicting claims from healthcare professionals, readily available online and shared in social circles, and the anxiety over the growing number of cases in the community.

Dr Annabelle Chow, a clinical psychologist with a particular interest in geriatric issues, said older people are particularly vulnerable to misinformation about the side effects of vaccines and the potentially serious consequences that taking them could have.

She said: “With the recent spike in Covid-19 cases and the growing number of people hospitalized, those who did not believe in the vaccine’s effectiveness before are more likely to see this information as confirmation that the vaccine may not be. not be effective. “

In three Telegram groups, users encouraged others to educate themselves on the use of ivermectin to cure Covid-19 or to treat symptoms after vaccination, citing articles published by groups of doctors affiliated with important anti-vaccine organizations.

One user recommended the drug as a supplement to reduce or prevent suspected damage from mRNA vaccines.

The Health Sciences Authority has warned that using ivermectin without a doctor’s prescription is dangerous because the drug has not been proven as a treatment for Covid-19.

But some netizens argued that the hospitalized woman had to obtain the drug from an unreliable supplier or country, while others claimed her illness was due to taking the vaccine. Sinopharm.

A 65-year-old woman was hospitalized after taking ivermectin on the advice of her church friends who said it could protect her against Covid-19. PHOTO: COURTESY OF VANESSA KOH

Dr Carol Soon, senior researcher at the Institute of Policy Studies, said misinformation about injuries caused by vaccines and alternative treatments could be more compelling because they are presented as personal anecdotes.

“These anecdotes appeal to the emotions of people who are already in a heightened state as Singapore sees increasing numbers of people infected and deaths.”

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser said those who are convinced of the high risk and low efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines may have been emboldened to erode public confidence in vaccines because of conflicting claims made by medical scientists or doctors.

He noted that the findings on Covid-19, which is still in development, are understandably provisional.

Professor Lim Sun Sun, head of humanities, arts and social sciences at Singapore University of Technology and Design, said some of the messages about these groups are not necessarily misinformation, but could be misinformation. facts taken out of context and misinterpreted without medical expertise.

Closed newsgroups, such as those on WhatsApp, are another place of misinformation.

However, ignoring someone sharing false news about Covid-19 on a family group chat can be damaging, said Associate Professor Edson C. Tandoc Jr, director of the NTU Center for Information Integrity and Internet.

He said: “It is possible that some elderly people share information not because they believe it, but because they are not sure, and they are hoping that someone can verify this information for them.

“If no one says anything, they think the information shared is not a problem.”

Some seniors like business development director Denny Tian, ​​66, educate their peers to be more critical of news sources.

He said: “We are running virtual sessions to show the reality that vaccinated seniors live happily and not in fear.”

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