What it’s like fighting fake COVID-19 health advice on YouTube
When my parents were visiting me from Kerala, my Dad started sunbathing in cold weather.
He’d heard an Australian scientist say that sunlight could prevent COVID-19.
And even though I told him it was against the advice of health authorities, he continued to believe that sunlight would protect him from the virus.
My dad had fallen for coronavirus misinformation online.
Our experience has made me realise how vulnerable some of us are to fake online health advice and how this can put individuals and the community at risk.
They arrived during the bushfires
My parents arrived in the midst of the bushfires in early January so they had a bad start to their holiday.
When their plane landed at Canberra airport the air was thick with bushfire smoke that had blanketed the city for weeks.
We could smell smoke in the air when I went to collect them from the airport. It was a shock to my parents.
Later that month, Australia reported its first case of coronavirus.
Around the same time, India had its first coronavirus patients.
Coincidentally, the cases were all from Kerala, my home state in India.
In March, the number of COVID-19 cases started to rise in both countries and around the world.
In a news vacuum
Although my parents can understand a little bit of English, they can’t comfortably follow local news channels.
So instead, they constantly checked the Indian regional news channels online.
While I stressed to my parents that Australia was relatively safe, the news outlets they watched weren’t reporting how well Australia or New Zealand were handling the pandemic at that stage.
So that news never reached them.
Instead they watched news focused on devastation wreaked in Spain and Italy, where doctors appeared to choose to treat younger patients over older patients as the sharp rise in coronavirus cases stretched health resources to the limit.
This coverage gave my parents the impression that Western nations were collectively faltering in their handling of the pandemic.
My parents wanted to return to India, which they thought was a much safer place to be then.
They were expecting to go home before June.
But as international borders closed, it seemed like they might be forced to stay here for longer.
Scared their lives were on the line
My parents became more anxious over time.
They worried whenever I left the house to go to work or buy groceries.
They were thinking that their lives were on the line.
But every evening when I took my dog out for a walk, I made it a point to bring my parents along with me, so that they didn’t end up spending the entire day inside.
An answer, on YouTube
We were on one of those walks in April when my father said: “An Australian scientist has found out that sunlight is quite effective in preventing COVID-19 infection.”
A friend had sent him a YouTube video on WhatsApp.
My father doesn’t realise how easy it is for anyone to publish a video online.
So if it’s on YouTube, then he tends to take it quite seriously. He doesn’t know how to fact-check the claims he sees in these videos.
This wasn’t the first time he’d mentioned dubious-sounding claims he’d found online.
But this video came out of Australia. And it featured an Australian scientist, speaking our language, Malayalam.
The fact that the scientist was a Malayali meant my Dad could better understand the information in his claim.
And, if he was an Australian scientist that legitimised what he was saying.
But, I had been getting up every morning, researching stories about COVID-19.
I was quick to point out to my father that sunlight is not a preventive measure against COVID-19.
Busting myths about COVID-19
He didn’t argue back, but he didn’t believe me either. After dinner, Dad sent the video to me.
The Australian scientist in the video is Dr Joji Abraham. He’s introduced as a director for the Australian Academy of Health, Environment and Safety, a business which sells workplace safety and first aid courses online.
I checked his credentials online and came across a website that said he had received a PhD in environmental science in 2018.
I sent my Dad a ‘mythbusters’ article from the World Health Organisation that clearly states, “Exposing yourself to the sun or to temperatures higher than 25℃ DOES NOT prevent the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)“.
I felt horrible that this video could be affecting vulnerable people like my parents who are looking for any sort of good news they can find about the pandemic.
Not a crime
So I looked up the number for Crime Stoppers.
I called and told the officer I wanted to report a piece of fake news made by a Melbourne man about COVID-19. He acknowledged that it’s not appropriate for somebody to do that.
And then he said, from a legal standpoint, that unless the man had obtained money or stood to gain financially from the video, there’s nothing that can be done by law enforcement.
In terms of tackling the virus, when the whole community is affected by the pandemic, I think false claims can turn people complacent and discourage them from strictly following the rules on social distancing or wearing masks.
I was devastated. I felt helpless against this video.
I tried to talk about it more with Dad that night, but my words had no effect.
Days later, I was talking to my wife about the YouTube video and she said:
It turned out my father, who mostly stayed indoors to stay warm during Canberra’s cold weather, had been standing in the front yard trying to catch as much sun as possible.
I kept trying to get through to Dad, but it was exhausting.
I realised my stress levels were going through the roof as well.
Skipped email, straight to YouTube
Internet consumption in India has exploded in recent years.
In 2016, the richest man in India offered 4G internet to everyone for free, and websites like YouTube and Facebook suddenly became very popular there.
The older generation skipped email addresses and went straight to WhatsApp and YouTube.
This is why I believe people like my Dad are more susceptible to fake news online. They never got the opportunity to learn how to fact-check online information.
I reported the video to Facebook and YouTube where it’s hosted, flagging it as inappropriate content and false news.
No action was taken. It was still online.
Flying home to India
My mother’s anxiety levels were affecting her health and she suffered from prolonged headaches.
A GP took a blood sample from her, which revealed she had dangerously low sodium levels. She was also stressed about being hospitalised in Australia, and decided to bring forward their return journey home to India.
Thankfully, we managed to book my parents on a chartered flight direct to Kochi from Sydney in July, through a private Melbourne-based tour operator.
They boarded the flight wearing masks and face shields.
I worry about them.
The number of COVID-19 cases are rapidly rising in India, including in Kerala. My hometown was under triple lockdown when they arrived. It’s certainly not safe for them to be back there.
My mother also had to visit the hospital to reinstate her blood sodium levels through intravenous fluids.
Taking ownership over fake news
I am strongly against fake news, as I realise its ill effects.
Health care workers are trying hard to fight the pandemic around the globe. False claims can undermine their efforts.
But I’ve found that the law in Australia is toothless in fighting them. I think it’s an area that the lawmakers should think about.
It’s not something Australia can do alone. Australia will have to join hands with other countries to stop this.
Governments need to take a lot more ownership over the impact fake news can have and push hard against the tech giants of the world.
Facebook and Google and others also have an important role to play in standing up against fake news.
They should take more responsibility for how their platforms can be used to spread false claims.
Dr Joji Abraham did not respond to ABC’s requests for comment.
After questions from the ABC’s Science Friction, YouTube removed the video in question for violating its COVID-19 Medical Misinformation Policy.
“We remain committed to providing timely and helpful information around COVID-19, including removing videos that promote medically unsubstantiated diagnostic advice, raising authoritative content, and showing information panels, using health organization data, to help combat misinformation. Since early February, we have removed over 200,000 videos related to dangerous or misleading COVID-19 information.”
“We continue to review content against our policies on harmful misinformation linked to COVID-19 and our Community Standards. We encourage anyone who sees harmful COVID-19 misinformation on our platforms to report it so we can take action.”
ACT Police said in a statement that, “in the absence of a specifically-identifiable crime, ACT Policing would not refer the matter for an investigation, noting in this case that the video appears to have been produced outside the ACT.”
Karma News’ Response:
Karma News defended Joji Abraham’s qualifications as a scientist, but did not respond to the ABC’s questions about any processes it implemented to verify his authority to speak on this issue and the claims he made before publishing the video on YouTube, as well as whether it stood by this content. They offered this statement in response.