Tuesday , May 28 2024

Bad actors are weaponising health misinformation in India

This article was first published here.

In the post-Covid world, we are all more conscious than ever before about our health and the importance of accurate information on important medical matters. Unfortunately, though, that has not stopped a small number of bad actors from shamelessly weaponising health misinformation for selfish reasons, even when it puts people’s well-being at risk.

Recently, renowned and well-respected Indian cardiologist Dr Tejas Patel fell victim to a malicious impersonation. Dr Patel, who is the chairman of the Apex Heart Institute in Gujarat, contacted the cybercrime police after he learned that a viral WhatsApp message containing fake health warnings had been circulating using his name and claiming to be written by him, despite his not know the message or its contents.

The power of messages like these should not be underestimated. Almost half a billion Indians use WhatsApp, a platform where eye-catching claims about medical matters can spread like wildfire as friends and relatives forward viral messages to each other. When the content of those messages is incorrect, it can do a great deal of harm, leading people to false beliefs about their health and impacting their well-being.

The message concerned palm oil, an ingredient used in various food and cosmetic products. It contained several unscientific claims which are easily debunked by simple research. For example, the message claimed that palmitic acid found in palm oil is very bad for our health. This is not true. Robust scientific research from institutions all over the world has consistently found that there is no reason to worry about threats to health from palmitic acid.

Palmitic acid is not unique to palm oil. Some meat and dairy products contain more of the acid than palm oil does. Therefore, if the anonymous author of the viral WhatsApp message were truly trying to warn Indians about palmitic acid’s dangers, they would warn against these products. Instead, they mention only palm oil, which gives us insight into their motives. They were not concerned with health and instead wanted to villainise palm oil at all costs.

The other claims made in the message about the various alleged threats palm oil poses to our health are also easy to disprove. “It’s far more dangerous than alcohol and smoking put together”, says the message. This is very far from the truth. Alcohol and tobacco are addictive and cause cancer. Palm oil, meanwhile, contains vitamin E and vitamin A, has antioxidant properties, and a healthy amount of fat. Using Dr Patel’s good name, the author of this message made false claims about palm oil to frighten Indians.

As well as informing the cybercrime police about this flagrant weaponisation of his name and reputation for malicious purposes, Dr Patel also released a public statement about the viral WhatsApp message. In a video posted on Facebook, the cardiologist told his followers the message had nothing to do with him and that they should not place any faith in what the message says about palm oil. “This message is a means to tarnish my reputation by some person or group,” he said.

We don’t know for sure who the bad actors behind this message might be, but it is not hard to imagine they might have vested corporate interests in their fear-mongering. Those with financial or business interests in the food industry might believe palm oil poses a threat, especially if they rely on selling palm oil’s rival products.

Alternative products like ghee are often costlier. Other oils like olive and soybean are much less efficient to produce, taking up more land, which means they are worse for the environment and more expensive for consumers. Perhaps, then, the viral WhatsApp message was an orchestrated campaign with financial motives. Whoever was behind it, obviously did not have Indians’ health at the front of their minds.

Health misinformation is sadly not limited to palm oil. This latest viral misinformation is not even the first time Dr Patel’s good name has been attacked in this way. Dr Patel has spoken previously about a fake message using his name from 2021 which falsely claimed that Covid was fading. Similarly, earlier in 2023, Dr Patel complained of people he called “miscreants in New Delhi” falsely using his name to harass people into purchasing treatment for varicose veins. Again, the police were informed.

Although police carry a responsibility to crack down on wanton misinformation spreaders of this kind when they arise, all citizens should also consider themselves responsible for checking the validity of health information they receive before circulating it. Passing on incorrect information could lead people to make changes to their diets or lifestyles based on false information or create fear of certain products like palm oil without scientific reasons. To beat harmful misinformation, everyone should do their part and avoid passing on messages like this which do not have appropriate expert support.

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