In early 2020, coronavirus pandemic had just begun. On January 23, 2020, Nepal announced first case of coronavirus infection in South Asia on a Nepali student at Wuhan University of Technology, Wuhan, China, who returned to Nepal with cough 10 days earlier. Second case was announced three months later in April, but it didn’t start going up until early May. However, due to the pandemic spreading in other part of the world, there were unprecedented public health fear in the government and the citizens, who imposed nationwide lockdown on March and suspended international flights although there was not a single active infection.
There were huge amount of mis/disinformation on coronavirus, especially during the early days of the pandemic. In this case study, four viral videos – two of them published on YouTube channels and two of them broadcasted on television channels, are analysed:
|April 14, 2020||YouTube||Detailed revelation for the first time, know the hidden game & the reality||Nabin Joshi, ‘Psychologist’||292K|
|August 29, 2020||YouTube||German and Italian experts said this about COVID-19, what happens now?||Surajeet Dutta, ‘Social activist’||171K|
|September 12, 2020||AP1 Television||AP Center: Different angle of Corona discussion||Jagreet Rayamajhi, ‘Activist’||n/a144K|
|June 2, 2021||Suryodaya Television||Corona Special Program: Gold attracts virus, reveals the Mayor||Dhruva Kumar Shiwakoti, Mayor||n/a600+|
Video 1 was published by a YouTube channel ‘Himal Online TV’ which has 273K subscribers. It is 1 hour 10 minutes long interview with Nabin Joshi who claims to be ‘Tribhuvan University Psychologist’. It was one of the trending videos in Nepal when it received 180K views in the first week. In the interview, Joshi made numerous false claims about coronavirus including those few: a. although PCR was invented 27 years ago, it wasn’t used until coronavirus pandemic; b. the European Union in 2011 declared World Health Organization a robber organization; c. mask doesn’t protect people [from coronavirus]; and, d. mortality rate of coronavirus is very low (0.1%) compared to swine flu or bird flu (9%).
Video 2 was also published on YouTube channel ‘Himal Online TV’. In 37-minute long interview, Surajeet Dutta, who claims to be social activist, made numerous false claims about coronavirus including those few: a. morality rate of covid is very low and medical data proves that there is no need to panic; b. Bill Gates had already registered for patent of Covid vaccine; c. Gates in 2015 proposed vaccination to control 10-15% of world’s population; d. wearing mask is dangerous; and, e. sanitizers weakens us.
Video 3 was broadcasted in AP1 Television – a national channel – in an hour-long talk show called AP Center with senior journalist Tika Ram Yatri hosting Dr. Sameer Mani Dixit and Jagreet Rayamajhi, a former student leader who claims to be an activist. During the program, Rayamajhi made several false claims about coronavirus such as a. 99 per cent of Italians who died of Coronavirus died because of other complications and not due to Covid-19; b. US agency CDC had only called it disease and not pandemic; and, c. a papaya was tested positive in Tanzania.
Video 3 was broadcasted in Suryodaya Television – a regional television station of east Nepal. It is an hour-long interview with Dhurva Kumar Shiwakoti, the Mayor of Birtamode Municipality in Jhapa district falsely claimed that a. sniffing a mixture of camphor, garlic and carom seeds cures Covid; b. inhaling a home brew mixing mango leaves, mugwort leaves and basil ‘puts Covid into a coma; c. wearing a mask is a crime; and d. gold jewellery attracts virus quickly.
ABCDE Framework Analysis
|Prime actors:Self-declared experts ranging from psychologist to politician.|
Secondary actors: Television channels and YouTube channels.
|Transparency: The actors are transparent.|
Intent: The behaviour suggests no aspersive intent.
Dependency: National, regional television channels and YouTube channels.
|Series of viral videos spreading misinformation about coronavirus.|
Harm: The contents could have ignited behavioural changes in the public leading to risky health practices.
Synthetic: The contents were unverified, unproven and fake information.
Narrative(s): The content is aligned with the disinformation narrative.
|Target audience:Nepali population|
Platforms:Television and YouTube
|Led public to riskier publish health behaviors.|
Actor: ‘Himal Online TV’ is a YouTube Channel with 273K subscribers. It’s seemed to be operated in a managed way looking at the quality of the video, camera works and studio. The presenter is Pradeep Dhami, who is identified as Founder/Chairman in an associated news portal. Its office address is listed as Anamnagar, Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Its operation started in 2018.
AP1 is a national television channel based in Kathmandu; and is a part of Nepal News Network International Private Limited, which also runs a daily Nepali newspaper, a weekly English newspaper, and a FM radio station. It’s owned by Captain Rameshwor Thapa, a well-known media and business personality. It is in operation since 2017.
Suryodaya is a regional television station based Birtamode, east Nepal and owned by Suryodaya TV and Media Private Limited. It was in operation since 2016.
In all the videos studied here, the misinformation about Covid was claimed by people who were not experts in relevant health field and have no expertise to talk about the disease or virus, yet the media provided them space to make false claims, and didn’t counter their statement or arguments.
Behaviour: The actor is transparent in identifying themselves and are using lawful means of communication, YouTube channel and television channels, to publish videos in Nepali languages. The actor didn’t seem to have an aspersive intent and rather seemed to have public awareness motive. They however didn’t challenge the false claims, despite some of them being outright false (‘masks are dangerous’ or ‘medicine for Covid’). More seriously, three of them used either misinformation or clickbait headlines based on misinformation to attract audience. Himal Online TV seems to have financial motivations behind publishing such videos as despite the first being criticized for misinformation and fact checked as fake, they published second video with similar misinformation.
Content: The videos contained lots of false contents that were presented as verifiable information, in some cases with misinterpretations of data or statements from credible institutions. The contents were targeted to ordinary Nepali citizens and there were clear attempts to present the misinformation in a way that it looks authentic and backed by evidence however although immediately difficult to verify, there were loads of misinterpretations, false claims.
Degree: The contents were either published on YouTube channel or broadcast in televisions channels and shared in multiple social media platforms including Facebook and YouTube in attempts to reach as many populations as possible. The platforms used were among the popular and powerful medium, however they were not boosted or paid to be pushed to bigger number of audiences. The videos seem to be one-off content.
Effect: At the time the video were broadcast and published, coronavirus pandemic was still at the early stage with many things now clear. However public safety measures such as wearing masks and unavailability of medicine were clear – and best precaution about it to understand whatsoever was known about it and follow the guidelines. However, the videos promoted messages that were against public safety measures, false claims that could’ve put the people in risk situation thereby threatening society and individuals’ health and medical safety.
The case has been identified as incidents of misinformation because the intent of the actors doesn’t seem to harm the public and is largely uncoordinated but these affected other’s ability to form their own ideas as the consequences of false information.
However, there is also indications of these being incidents of disinformation as those who spread verifiably false contents deliberately promoted it for ‘economic benefits’ (in case of YouTube channel) and their use of headlines suggest they tried to ‘intentionally deceived the public’. The content also had the element to causing public harm.
During the Covid pandemic, there was also infodemic – the huge amount of information and misinformation about coronavirus spreading quicker than the virus. In the early stage, when many facts were not scientifically established, there quite a huge amount of misinformation about Covid. It was true in Nepal also and a study of four videos – two broadcasts in mainstream media and two published in social media – showed that ‘irrelevant experts’ were given space to make false claims without a counter question. In some cases, the presence of relevant health expert or well-known journalist made the misinformation believable to the audience. Some of the false claims clearly have public health safety implications that might have encouraged people to change their behaviour. Although the assessment of impact of the video couldn’t be well-established empirically, the messaging has the potential to impact those who have watched it to follow riskier behaviour or assess the risks posed by coronavirus in a hazardous way.