Podcast: Why Is Debunking Health Misinformation in India So Challenging?

TheLiverDoc and ScienceIsDope talk about what it takes to tackle health misinformation online, and why they do it.

3 min read

In the last few years, perhaps because of the internet, and also because of the COVID pandemic itself, we've seen a barrage of misinformation in the realm of health like never before - whether it's home remedies, easy immunity boosters, or even unscientific use of medication like Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine.

But, through the pandemic years, some people have been fighting against this barrage, particularly online.

On this episode of News and Views, we speak to Hepatologists Dr Abby, Phillip, known online as TheLiverDoc, and YouTuber and science communicator, Pranav Radhakrishnan (ScienceIsDope) about the trials of debunking health misinformation online, facing trolls, and why it's so important to tackle them head on.

Below are some excerpts from the conversation.


"I actually came into this space of debunking or fighting misinformation because it was personal for me," says Dr Philips.

"Seeing my patients, young people and children get into avoidable health burdens made me first look at it from a clinical perspective."
Dr Cyriac Abby Philips

Dr Abby says that he started by working on clinical research, but soon realised that these research papers in journals were not accessible to the masses.

"So, that is how I started using Twitter as a loudspeaker, initially for my research publications, but then slowly that spread into this aspect of public health discourse," he adds.

Pranav Radhakrishnan agrees, saying, "I'm a science communicator. The best way to reach a lot of people, which is what communication basically is, is through social media."

"There was a lot of misinformation, and disinformation, on social media, and there was no one calling it out. At the time there was nobody else. And I thought, why don't I do this?"
Pranav Radhakrishan, ScienceIsDope

How do they go about doing this?

"If there's a particularly popular piece of misinformation that spreads online, I research where it came from, and see 'what is the actual science behind it?'," says Radhakrishnan.

He adds he then produces a video where he talks about the actual science and research behind that piece of misinformation. "I try to provide good information in a way that the viewers can easily understand."

"In the beginning, I used to be a little offensive in my videos. Like, I would use a lot of sarcasm. And in the comments I saw that some people would use this one joke as an excuse to discard or disregard the whole video."
Pranav Radhakrishan, ScienceIsDope

"So I changed my tone completely. All my recent videos are a little more, you know, tone of air and a little more moderate in tone and just presenting the facts and maybe also talking about what may be the reasons behind people believing this," he adds.

Dr Philips, on the other hand, says, "I have a different kind of audience and a different kind of way that I talk about the scientific evidence. On Twitter, the problem is that people actually take you for a ride if you're very nice to them, because a lot of them come there just to draw you."

"I feel that there is some role of combative scientific debates or arguments or scientific communications in a written format," he says, adding, "You need to choose your battles. And when you need to be combative and when you don't have to."

When it comes to debunking misinformation, particularly health misinformation, in India, both Dr Philips and Radhakrishnan say it doesn't come without its challenges.

Dr Abby says people often tend to get defensive and upset with what they're saying because it "breaks their traditional beliefs that have been there for a very long time."

"Because their mother, or grandmother has been giving them these concoctions and say, 'drink this, you will be better, you'll have a better immunity.' So when I say that it does not work, they actually take it personally because, you know, their mother, their grandmothers are being persecuted here with this new information."
Dr Cyriac Abby Philips

According to Radhakrishnan, "I am of the belief that alternative medicine is a pseudoscience that can cause very immediate, very significant harm. But it's a product of a pattern of thinking, a thought process, which also leads to a lot of other pseudoscientific beliefs."

He says, "even if me and Abby been successful in debunking, and let's say even getting rid of all alternative medicine. This thought process still remains. It's going to act like this fertile soil, this base on top of it, a new form of harmful defence can come from. So I tried to attack that base."

"I try to get people to think more rationally, and and make sure that thought process that leads to these harmful beliefs itself is not there."
Pranav Radhakrishan, ScienceIsDope

Listen to the full audio podcast here:

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