The social media craze In India might be making the country sicker, as untrue and often dangerous messages about health circulate via online platforms at an alarming pace.
India is a rapidly growing market for social media. By 2022, the country could be home to as many as 370.77 million social networkers.
The rise of social media has allowed for the mass sharing of data on an international scale. However, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp have also become forums for the spread of fake news. This is a phenomenon closely associated with politics. However, it is also rapidly becoming a public health concern.
Recently, WhatsApp messages were forwarded to users encouraging them to “avoid black bra in summer” to prevent breast cancer. The message purported to be from the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, but was actually a hoax.
Other such reports have claimed to have cures for diabetes and dengue fever. Some even said that commonly prescribed medications cause viral diseases. One notable example claimed that acetaminophen tablets contained the Machupo virus which can only be contracted via contact with the bodily fluids of infected rodents. Cases to date have been observed solely in south America.
“The spread of fake news…is a phenomenon closely associated with politics. However, it is also rapidly becoming a public health concern.”
All of the above are demonstrably false and have been debunked by medical professionals. However, they continue to gain traction online.
This comprises part of a worldwide trend, where many long-disproven myths about health find new life and audiences on the internet. Perhaps the most notable example is the purported link between vaccines and autism – a false supposition based on a debunked and since-retracted study published in British medical journal The Lancet in 1998.
One quarter of false messages online relate to medical advice, according to Indian fact-checking website Check4Spam.com – an online tool which seeks to counteract the spread of fake news online in India.
“This comprises part of a worldwide trend, where many long-disproven myths about health find new life and audiences on the internet.”
One of the factors fuelling the rise of this misinformation (and its uptake by citizens), according the ToI, is India’s shortage of doctors. As India’s health check recently found, India needs to recruit around five lakh physicians if it is to meet World Health Organization (WHO) standards of one doctor for every thousand patients.
Where there are no doctors to turn to for advice on symptoms or ailments, patients may turn to the internet as a substitute. On the other hand, if fake advice is forwarded to them by friends or family members, they might not have a medical professional to turn to in order to verify the information.
Such fake news can be deadly. This is especially true in cases where patients forego life-saving medical treatment for conditions such as diabetes in favour of false remedies. Awareness must be raised of the danger of taking medical advice on social media at face value instead of consulting a doctor. Meanwhile, more work needs to be done to strengthen India’s public health system, so that patients will not be in the position to rely on social media for their health check in the first place.