How misinformation has increased the woes of the elderly, especially in the pandemic

"Unlike digital natives, a lot of elderly people have had access to technology much later in life. As a consequence of that, their competence at differentiating between verified and unverified sources in the digital universe tends to be limited."

By Salik Ahmad

It was the time of Covid-19 first wave. Anshul Srivastava, a 33-year old writer in Mumbai, would tire every single day of telling her mother to take the virus seriously, not step out of the house even for a minute, and most importantly, not believe everything that she read on her phone.

“She would come to me with all sorts of things – from how a certain kaadha (potion) could protect you from Covid to how wearing camphor in your neck could help. She even wouldn’t let me order any non-vegetarian food, because she had read somewhere that the virus was doing more damage to people who consumed meat,” Anshul says.

She would then try to reason with her mother and ask about the source of the information. Moreover, she says, whatever her mother read, she would discuss with other women in the neighbourhood, and many a time it would get reaffirmed, thereby reinforcing those faulty notions. “Plus the sense that they know better and their innate desire to ‘protect’ us, the younger ones, made them even more adamant about those things.”

“It was such a depressing time. We couldn’t go out, we couldn’t meet anybody. The kids were working from home, so we couldn’t watch TV either. There was no entertainment, no life. Bilkul mann pareshaan ho gaya tha,” Rashmi Lal (63), Anshul’s mother, a homemaker, says. While trying to address the scourge of misinformation, one mustn’t lose sight of how isolating the pandemic has been for the elderly.

The Covid-related misinformation has been a massive problem in the country’s efforts to fight the virus. In fact, a study conducted by a researcher from the University of Alberta, found in August 2021 that India is the biggest source of Covid misinformation in the world with almost one out of every six pieces of misinformation coming from the country. For his study, the researcher had analysed 9,657 pieces of misinformation emanating from 138 countries.

But how exactly does widespread misinformation cause harm? An article by the World Health Organization (WHO) explains: “[Infodemics] create a breeding ground for uncertainty. Uncertainty in turn fuels skepticism and distrust, which is the perfect environment for fear, anxiety, finger-pointing, stigma, violent aggression and dismissal of proven public health measures — which can lead to loss of life.”

More than 700 people died in Iran in April 2020 after consuming toxic methanol, because they fell prey to the misinformation that it could disinfect your body and protect you from Covid, according to the Associated Press.

An important question that arises in the Covid misinformation discourse is: are the elderly more susceptible to misinformation? “The elderly have relatively more free time, and thus they spend more time watching television, on social media, and on WhatsApp, all three being major sources of misinformation currently. Naturally, their window of exposure to misinformation is bigger,” says Raman VR, a public health expert and convener of the health desk at All India Peoples Science Network.

“The misinformation also originates at various levels. One level is that of peers, who send messages like having XYZ or a drug produced by XYZ brand will improve your immunity against Covid. Another is that of celebrities. For instance, a firm owned by someone popular had been advertising an indigenous medicine for Covid without proper evidence,” Raman adds.

“And then, the irrational initiatives of the government itself. During the peak of the second wave, people were running from pillar to post to get plasma. The Delhi government, in an attempt to be seen doing something concrete, set up plasma banks, when there was no clear evidence linking plasma to Covid treatment.”

Pulkit Khanna, an associate professor of psychology, adds that there is enough research now — and not just from India — to suggest that elderly people are more susceptible to misinformation. She finds multiple reasons at the root of this tendency, “One fairly obvious reason is that unlike digital natives, a lot of elderly people have had access to technology much later in life, which is why there is a phenomenon called digital skill disparity. As a consequence of that, their competence at differentiating between verified and unverified sources in the digital universe tends to be limited.”

“Second relates to the frequency of accessing these platforms. With a lot of elderly people, because there’s been isolation, there’s less stepping out, less interaction, their reliance on and consumption of digital information has gone high. And it’s a space where the good bad ugly comes all mixed up on their social media news feed,” says Khanna, who teaches at Jindal Institute of Behavioural Sciences. “And the third was the widespread uncertainty and disbelief, and fear, owing to increased vulnerability to the virus because of age, which led the elderly to believe things out of desperation, regardless of their authenticity.”

The disbelief also stemmed from people’s scepticism towards the state, and the profiteering by private firms that thrived during the Covid crisis, explains Pratik Sinha, founder of fact-checking website Alt News. “Both of these things caused distrust. And when there’s an alternate narrative that’s available, you believe it. Or at least you start listening to it. And the more you listen, the more convincing you find it.”

So how to combat this? “Nobody has a clear answer. But definitely, large-scale awareness programmes and educational programmes through schools could be the initial and necessary approach. It’s difficult to educate the elderly as they are out of organised education. The only way is to teach younger people to have more information literacy to subsequently help older people in making better judgments,” Sinha says.

Besides, the oft-repeated practical advice still holds value: ‘Think before believing. Think twice before forwarding. And check the source, always.’

(Salik Ahmad is a Delhi-based independent journalist)

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