A purge by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube of anti COVID-19 vaccination content is driving India's anti-vaxxers to Telegram where lack of scrutiny is allowing them to amplify opposition against vaccination, lockdowns and masking.
Telegram, a peer-peer to messaging application just like WhatsApp is the new breeding ground for anti-vaccination groups such as The Great Awakening, India Against Slavery, Shri Rajiv Dixit Jan Jeevan Sanrakshan, Awaken India Movement, Anarchy for Freedom, Dr. Biswaroop Chaudhary, Dr. Tarun Kothari, Dr. Vilas Jagdale and Kapil Bajaj Support Group.
Lack of oversight and the provision to add unlimited members to a channel have made Telegram a refuge for groups that have been banned from more popular mainstream platforms.
Unlike the US where anti-vaccination campaigns are rampant, India has never seen such a large section of people opposing vaccinations. However, this is now changing as these groups mobilise online.
These groups are also trying to actively convert their online following into on- ground protests across the country. While Awaken India and Anarchy of Freedom have close to 7,500 members, Biswaroop has amassed over 20,000 members in his channel, the groups for Rajiv Dixit, Tarun Kothari range between 500-2000. Vilas Jagdale's follower count was close to 5000.
Each of these groups have released templates of letters urging people to not take the vaccine by listing various reasons such as allergies, past reports of adverse events, and the assumption that taking the vaccine is mandatory.
COVID-19 vaccination is not mandatory in India but these Telegram groups are amassing followers on the assumption that various organisations will ask for proof of vaccination.
BOOM accessed three letters, two shared by Awaken India Movement and one shared by Shri Rajiv Dixit Jan Jeevan Sanrakshan that ask their followers to send these templates to not only district officials but also employers if mandatory vaccine requests arise in offices.
In the first template shared by Awaken India Movement along with Vilas Jagdale, urged people to write to their district magistrates demanding a waiver from receiving the vaccine on religious grounds. The letter uses already debunked theories about vaccines containing cow serum, fetal cells, and aluminum.
Awaken India Movement's second letter came after BOOM fact checked the first letter. The second letter by is a part of a 47-page document that the group has created to be sent to employers or educational institutions asking for vaccination.
Through this letter, they highlight that the government suggests that vaccination is a voluntary choice and that the judiciary of the country- Supreme Court, Meghalaya and Gauhati High Court have upheld voluntary vaccination, as well. They also include the Adverse Event Following Immunisation and USA Vaccine Adverse Reactions reports.
Finally, the third template by Shri Rajiv Dixit Jan Jeevan Sanraksha is directed towards employers who might require employees to be vaccinated. The letter asks seven pointed questions- legal status of the vaccine, details of control groups in the COVID-19 vaccine trials, list of contents used in the vaccine, adverse effects, whether it alters genes, and fatality risk. It even asks the employer to confirm that the person will suffer no harm and request a doctor to take responsibility if anything were to happen to the patient.
To show that their presence is not only limited to online chatter, Awaken India Movement called for a nation-wide protest against vaccination in city chapters on July 24. Several protestors turned up with placards and banners against lockdowns, masking, and vaccination.
What Makes Telegram The Preferred Choice For Anti-COVID Theories?
BOOM contacted Yohan Tengra, founder of Anarchy for Freedom and core member of Awaken India Movement, two of the groups that are against COVID-19 vaccination and lockdowns. "Telegram is better than most mediums as there is no censorship for having a different opinion. Secondly, it allows us to reach out to a large group of people who can also have their say in the group."
Telegram was created by two Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov in 2013. On their channel called Durov's Channel that they have said that "Telegram never blocked posts discussing the lab leak theory, because we didn't think it's our role to decide for our users what they should believe."
They also said that Telegram allowed 19 governments including India's to create channels that share real-time data and that 'spreading the truth was a more efficient strategy than engaging in censorship.'
BOOM spoke to Dr. Satish Nambudiripad, the Additional Director General, New Media Wing, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to understand if the government is monitoring what is happening on the platform. "The NMW does not have the mandate nor the capabilities to monitor Telegram and other such social messaging applications. The government uses Telegram, too and they have quite a presence," he stated.
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