Inside India’s Anti-Vaxx Telegram Groups, COVID-19 is a Conspiracy
The conspiracy theorists and COVID-19 deniers have found a new home in closed messaging services like Telegram.
The Quint DAILY
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Inside the anti-vaccination groups and channels on Telegram runs a parallel universe that does not believe COVID-19 is real and the coronavirus vaccines are means concocted by “corrupt government officials” and pharmaceutical companies to ‘depopulate’ the earth.
“The COVID-19 “vaccine” is actually an ongoing gene therapy experiment on an unsuspecting populace that is not scheduled to be finished until 31 January 2023,” reads one of the messages in a Telegram Channel of an organisation called ‘Awaken India Movement’.
The quote was attributed to one Dr Vernon Coleman, a known anti-vaccination activist and conspiracy theorist. He has made several false claims about COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. In September 2020, Dr Coleman called COVID-19 a hoax by comparing it with the flu. Since March 2016, Coleman no longer has a licence to practice medicine.
Such conspiracy theories and misinformation are rampant on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram from the beginning of the pandemic.
Updates in the companies policies and removal of posts relating to COVID-19 and vaccines resulted in a reduction of such voices online.
And now, these conspiracy theorists have found a new home in closed messaging services like Telegram where it is easy for people to look for groups and channels that suit their ideology and join them.
From Pandemic Skepticism to Vaccine ‘Victims’
A channel called “TRUTH PILLS” describes itself as a “group that will expose the Covid hoax, Governments, Paedophiles and everything else against Humanity! (sic)” Started in December 2020, the channel now has over 5,500 subscribers. The administrator regularly posts debunked COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Another channel called “WE THE PEOPLE WORLDWIDE” posts regular information about protests held around the world along with misinformation.
The groups believe that there is a larger conspiracy at play involving Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates. Another popular theory in the groups and channels likes to believe the COVID-19 is a creation of the Chinese government in an attempt to gain global domination.
The Telegram groups for Awake India Movement started with the goal of “revealing the truth behind the “COVID-19: The Great Reset”.
A Telegram channel for this group has a little over 1,100 subscribers where anti-vaccination graphics and videos are shared along with details about PILs registered asking the Centre questions about the necessity of wearing a mask, the reason for a lock and a vaccine.
The group also meets physically to hold anti-mask protests and also discuss future plans, coordination for which is done using Telegram among other things.
Another channel called “COVID VACCINE VICTIMS” has over 62,000 followers and regularly posts stories about people who died after taking the COVID-19 vaccine in the world. So far in India, no direct link has been established between the deaths post-vaccination and the COVID-19 vaccine, yet the channel has made several posts about Indians who have died after vaccination.
The posts are often personal anecdotes of people, often taken from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Since the stories are personal experiences, it is often hard to debunk. However, the stories lead to vaccine hesitancy among its subscribers.
A Hub of Unfiltered and Uncensored Content
Anti-vaccination doctors and conspiracy theorists share their unfiltered content on these channels and groups. These groups contain numerous videos featuring self-proclaimed ‘medical experts’ like Dr Biwaroop Roy Chowdhury and Dr Tarun Kothari.
Dr Chowdhury has an honorary PhD in diabetes studies from a now deregistered university in Zambia, but is seen suggesting cures to all kinds of diseases through his ‘fruit diet’. Dr Chowdhury has been banned from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for spreading misinformation but he continues to propagate unfounded claims and theories.
Dr Kothari, who claims to be a medical doctor, too, shares unproven theories on Telegram, which is then shared on various other groups.
The central idea connecting all these doctors are beliefs that COVID-19 does not exist, lockdowns are useless and vaccines are a way to “control” people and depopulate the world. Only these handful of doctors know the “truth”.
Both doctors have also made several public appearances since the pandemic began, propagating the same unproven cures and conspiracies, videos of which get shared on the messenger apps.
The conspiracy theories in the groups are also unhinged and would remind one of the outrageous claims made by the disproven and discredited conspiracy theory group called QAnon or Q.
The doctors claim that all influential people in the country – top political leaders, Bollywood celebrities and some doctors – are in on the COVID-19 scam.
Dr Chowdhury often questions celebrities for asking people to take COVID-19 seriously.
The Social Media Redirection
Although these Telegrams spaces form a COVID-19 denial bubble for people to share anti-vaxx ideas, they still use the leading social media websites to spread the word about their channels and groups.
An Indian YouTube channel called ‘Nutriradar’, which has 20,000 subscribers, posts regular videos on COVID-19 conspiracy theories. The thumbnails of all the videos feature Dr Chowdhury, Dr Kothari and other doctors who question the vaccine.
The host, who presents his videos like a news bulletin in Hindi, uses code words to talk about the pandemic and the vaccine – CV for COVID-19 and Vaxx for the vaccine. He repeatedly reminds the audience that he uses code words to avoid getting strikes from YouTube for spreading COVID-19 misinformation.
He also regularly mentions his users to follow his Telegram channel to get uncensored videos of the anti-vaxx doctors, which are often removed from Facebook and YouTube because of the changes in their policies. The Telegram channel has close to 2,000 subscribers.
A similar strategy is used by another YouTube channel called “Technical News” which posts small trailer-like videos and mentions that people need to follow its Telegram channel to get the uncensored content which is might get a policy violation strike on YouTube.
The channel has over 27,000 subscribers on YouTube and less than 1,000 subscribers on Telegram. However, these videos are shared on all other groups by different admins.
We reached out to Telegram for a comment and the story will be updated as and when we hear from them.
These conspiracy theory groups and channels are gaining followers every day and are building a coordinated strategy to reach more and more people. The lack of clear and concise communication from political leaders and public health experts helps the channels in their goal.
Multiple news reports have shown how COVID-19 misinformation can help fuel real-world events. People have died from alcohol poisoning, eating or drinking soap, and consuming unproven drugs without a doctor’s advice.
The social media chatter about the vaccine is heightening individual concerns in coronavirus vaccines. This "vaccine hesitancy" can become an obstacle to achieving herd immunity and ending the pandemic.
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