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Indonesia battles spread of vaccine misinformation

Government, NGOs, and media platforms launch fact-checking channels to dispel fake information around COVID-19 vaccine

Ika Ningtyas   | 27.01.2021
Indonesia battles spread of vaccine misinformation

JAKARTA, Indonesia

Although Indonesia is battling against the rapid spread of inaccurate information and fake news since the outbreak of COVID-19, it has turned out a serious challenge for the vaccination campaign, launched recently.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Yenny Octawangi, who lives in Banyuwangi regency in East Java province said the news floating in social media messaging groups is confusing people. She said a message claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine contained haram (forbidden) ingredients.

Few other messages circulated in several chat groups even went to the extent of claiming that vaccines implanted chips in the human body, causing the death of dozens of people.

Octawangi admitted that such information confused and led to her indecision about the vaccine

"I am worried and afraid of being vaccinated," she said.

According to Indonesia’s Communication and Information Technology Ministry, they have detected at least 70 fake news items from Oct. 2020-Jan. 18, 2021 regarding COVID-19 vaccine.

A civil society group Anti-Slander Society (MAFINDO), working to fight fake news has counted 80 hoaxes demeaning the vaccines from March 2020-Jan. 23 this year.

Immediately after the vaccination campaign began on Jan. 13, the number of fake news against vaccines also accelerated.

The ministry recorded 22 fake news circulated between Jan.1-18, while data collected by MAFINDO shows that the number of hoaxes from January 1-23 reached 35. The month of December recorded 16 such malicious news items.

A viral video on Jan. 19, with a caption, that vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech killed a student in Jember regency of East Java province, was shared 81,000 times on Facebook and received 6,900 comments.

MAFINDO’s fact-checking results showed that the video was dated back to 2018 when dozens of boarding school students fainted due to dehydration after getting shots against diphtheria.

Another viral video claims that the Chinese made vaccine contains a chip that can control humans for life.

Three groups identified

Speaking to the agency, Septiaji Eko Nugroho, chairman of MAFINDO, identified three main groups that are spreading fake news regarding vaccines.

He said that one anti-vaccination group had a religious background, while the second harbors anti-Chinese and anti-West bias.

"So, they’re not anti-vaccine, but anti-Sinovac, or anti-Pfizer," he said, identifying the third group as those who have become the victim of conspiracy theories.

Executive Secretary of Indonesian Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (ITAGI) Julitasari Sundoro traced the anti-vaccination movement back to the 18th century when a vaccine was developed against smallpox.

"As the vaccine is becoming more and more popular, there are communities and views that reject them called anti-vaccination groups," Sundoro said in a virtual dialogue at the Media Center for the National Committee on COVID-19 and Economic Recovery recently.

Before the vaccination campaign started, several surveys had shown that people refused to be vaccinated or were doubtful about the coronavirus vaccine due to infodemic.

According to the survey published by Laporcovid19.org, a coalition group of citizens, on Oct. 13, only 31% of respondents are willing to receive vaccine developed by the country’s Biofarma and Sinovac. Both the vaccines were undergoing phase three of clinical trials. The rest of 69% of respondents were not willing to get inoculated or were in doubt.

An online survey conducted by UNICEF, WHO, and Indonesia’s Health Ministry, showed that as many as 8% of respondents refused to get inoculated. But a majority 65% of showed willingness to get vaccinated. The survey was conducted in 34 provinces in September last year and included 115,000 respondents.

Poor official communication

Health experts believe that at least 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity in less than one year.

Ahmad Arif, the initiator of the coalition group, apprehended that the massive hoaxes will have an impact on the success of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. He attributed massive fake news to poor communication from the government side.

Also, he added, when the initial vaccination target for health workers was yet to be completed, the government raised the discourse on independent vaccination.

"The appointment of celebrity influencers during the first vaccination drive turned out to be a blunder," Arif told Anadolu Agency.

Demanding a change in the communication strategy of the government to increase public trust, he said it was necessary to put a stop to misinformation before it wildly spreads on social media.

Arif said that government should explain that vaccines are only a part of efforts to put pandemics under control, adding that it is also important for the authority to increase testing, tracing, and treatment.

"Vaccination will not solve the pandemic problem without the support of those three," he said.

While agreeing on poor government communication, Fajar Junaedi, a lecturer in Communication Science at the University of Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta, linked the rise of fake news to political polarization during the 2019 Presidential Election.

"Poor public communication has led to the spread of various conflicting information," Fajar told Anadolu Agency.

Not unique to Indonesia

Amid the information chaos, he said, media literacy is still low, so people tend to believe the clickbait and fake news that are widely spread on social media, causing public confidence in the government's efforts to overcome the pandemic to decline.

Fajar asked the government to immediately integrate public communication for the vaccination campaign and avoid mistakes made by government officials.

Siti Nadia Tarmizi, official spokesperson for COVID-19 vaccination said that refusal of coronavirus vaccination did not only occur in Indonesia but also in many other countries. She said the government had anticipated this situation as it had faced the same challenges while vaccinating against polio and rubella.

She said one of the strategies taken by the government was providing more information about vaccines based on facts and science, using government websites, including Covid19.go.id and ministry page as the main channel to refute fake news.

Further, the government is involving community health centers, religious leaders, and village officials to help to publish posters and spreading leaflets.

Fact-checking system

Tarmizi hopes that fake news does not affect people's perceptions about other common vaccination programs.

“The decline in common immunization amid pandemic is more due to the reluctance of the people to go to the health care,” she added.

Nugroho said Indonesia has a strong fact-checking ecosystem to help people to know the truth about any uncertain information. His group has also launched fact-checking websites: Turnbackhoax.id and Chatbot Kalimasada.

Several mainstream media have also started fact-checking channels that work together with platforms like Facebook to flag fake information.

"Since 2018, there has also been the Cekfakta.com, a site in collaboration between MAFINDO and 24 cyber media, supported by the Alliance of Independent Journalists and the Indonesian Cyber Media Association," he added.

*Writing by Rhany Chairunissa Rufinaldo from Anadolu Agency's Indonesian-language service in Jakarta.

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