On March 15, more than a week before a nationwide lockdown brought India to a standstill, an audience of nearly 100 people gathered in an auditorium in Rajkot, in the northwestern state of Gujarat, to hear the YouTube doctor Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury speak via Skype from his home in New Delhi.
On the call, Chowhury told the audience that the coronavirus was only a flu, and that it was being marketed as a pandemic by big pharmaceutical corporations with vested interests in doing so. Chowdhury misquoted a study by The New England Journal of Medicine as saying that the fatality rate of the coronavirus was 0.1%. “It can be cured by making a small intervention in your diet,” he asserted.
In videos and talks, Chowdhury has described COVID-19 as an elaborate conspiracy motivated by “the business of fear.” He has claimed that the illness has triggered suicides in parts of India, and that even health care workers are being subjected to violence and abuse. “People are scared to go to hospitals,” he said. “Anyone who goes is forced to get tested and treated like they have something horrible.” Yet as India and the rest of the world adjust to the coronavirus pandemic, the business of fear has been very good for telemedicine influencers.
It has been nearly 10 years since Chowdhury gave up his career as an engineer to pursue a new calling as a nutritionist. The self-described doctor has no formal medical training, though he claims to have an honorary Ph.D. in diabetes studies from a recently deregistered university in Zambia. He initially gained fame, toward the end of 2013, by claiming to have “cured” diabetes, but he insists his expertise spans multiple fields: HIV (which he believes is not real), memory, cancer — and now the coronavirus. “It’s all interconnected,” Chowdhury says. “I want to reach as many people as possible in a limited time. My only intention is that people should know the truth.”
Chowdhury’s star began to rise in 2015, when he started sharing explainer videos about his remedies and patient testimonials on YouTube. His videos, bolstered by English subtitles, drew an enormous audience, as did his three-day program purporting to “cure” people of diabetes by regulating their diet. At the same time, he also attracted the attention of regulators. That year, he was called out as a fraud in the respected Indian daily The Hindu, and, following complaints that it was misleading, the Advertising Standards Council of India banned a newspaper ad for his diabetes workshop.
Yet none of this matters to his fans. Over the years, Chowdhury has built an expansive digital empire through online nutrition training courses, certification programs, and consultancy services. He employs a 50-person social media team to man his hotline and share his videos across 170 WhatsApp channels. And recently, his coronavirus denialism has ramped up business even more. Since early February, Chowdhury’s dozen YouTube videos about the “myth” of the coronavirus have amassed more than 5 million views. His Telegram channel gained more than 13,000 followers in a week, and in the past two months, his fan following on YouTube has grown by one-third, to 952,000 subscribers. Before it was taken down on April 1, one of Chowdhury’s videos — which argued that fear, not Covid-19, kills people— garnered more than 2.1 million views.
In India, YouTube has 245 million monthly active users, making it the company’s largest and fastest-growing market. The glut of new content has played a major role in informing and shaping public opinion, and not always for the better — over the past couple of months, YouTube’s moderation team has played whack-a-mole with videos deemed public health risks. In addition to sheer volume, part of the problem is classification: At the beginning of April, YouTube disclosed that it had witnessed a 75% upswing in views of material it designates as “news.” And unlike their television counterparts, these channels are not regulated.
The cumulative subscriber count of the three most popular YouTube “news” channels in India, DLS News, Indilinks News, and NMF News, comes to more than 28 million. The most followed is DLS News, which has more than 17 million subscribers. People are not only subscribing to these channels, they’re watching them: Indilinks News, which says it wants to promote “courageous journalism,” put out a video claiming “Indians have a specific RNA” that would shield the country from COVID-19. That video garnered more than 5 million views in a week.
“You have this phenomenon of hyperlocal channels going viral on YouTube,” says Karen Rebelo of BOOM, an independent Indian fact-checking site that seeks to counter online misinformation. The regional dialects spoken in these videos have limited appeal, but given the enormous number of people in India, they can have tremendous impact. “Most videos that are doing well are not in English,” she said, and are being “viewed by people coming online for the first time.”
Chowdhury built much of his following through appearing on such channels and spreading misinformation. In interviews, he has positively cited South African President Thabo Mbeki’s claim that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and has cautioned that those who are uncritical of mainstream COVID-19 treatments would meet a similar fate to that of US President George Washington, who died after undergoing the common 18th-century procedure of bloodletting. Chowdhury has also gone after the government. He dismissed India’s coronavirus lockdown as having no benefit, and regularly deflects questions about the coronavirus death toll by noting that upward of 20,000 people die every year of “influenza-like illnesses.”
The lack of online news regulation in India has also coincided with another recent development — the rediscovery of traditional medicine. In the absence of a vaccine or proven treatment for COVID-19, many Indians who cannot afford Western drugs or medical procedures are turning to the Ayurveda, Siddha, or Unani systems for relief. Digital influencers have seized on this interest to promote their own unsubstantiated claims and “alternative” cures. Sometimes, they simply tell people to follow accepted advice, like eating fresh fruits and vegetables, yet more often, their suggestions are not so innocuous. “We have seen the resurgence in national pride leading to a lot of pseudoscience,” says Rajneil Kamath, the publisher of Newschecker, a website that combats disinformation in eight Indian languages.
To their credit, some platforms have stepped up to police harmful content. WhatsApp has announced restrictions on forwarding messages. Twitter has repurposed its rules to ban posts encouraging “fake cures” or promoting “misleading content.” YouTube has recently started deleting some of Chowdhury’s COVID-19 videos, and in a statement to Rest of World, the company said that it is taking various steps to address medical misinformation, including “beginning to reduce recommendations of certain medical videos,” attaching information panels and removing posts that violates community guidelines. But even expanded moderation efforts can’t keep up with the spread of content urging people to follow dangerous medical advice. Misleading and quasi-scientific content is now a mainstay of Indian YouTube.
While many of India’s YouTube doctors never leave their bubbles, Chowdhury is an exception. His videos are all in Hindi, and his influence extends to the upper echelons of India’s political class. On March 5, he met Dr. Harsh Vardhan, the health minister responsible for India’s response to the pandemic, at the minister’s office inside the Indian parliament in Delhi. Chowdhury planned to offer “his services to help cure COVID-19.” His advice was simple: Believing that all viral infections are the same and can be cured by boosting immunity, he recommended that patients undertake a three-day diet of coconut water, citrus juice, and vegetables. “Dr. Vardhan did not agree,” Chowdhury said later, sounding disappointed at how the meeting went.
Chowdhury’s clientele is varied; he claims it includes laborers and truck drivers, businesspeople and bureaucrats. One of them, a member of parliament from the state of Maharashtra, helped set up the meeting with Vardhan. (The client, KB Tumane, follows Chowdhury’s three-step diet for diabetes.) People have different reasons for putting their trust in Chowdhury. Some simply appreciate that he isn’t trying to scare them, while others, like Harjeet Singh Virdi from Ghaziabad, find him cathartic: “After listening to your talk I’m relieved of the fear of corona,” he wrote on Chowdhury’s Facebook page. “That’s why I keep watching your video over and over, especially after watching the news.”
Others still, like Meena Gupta, simply believe in his medical approach. Gupta says she was initially apprehensive about his treatments, but watching Chowdhury’s videos convinced her. In 2016, after the successful completion of Chowdhury’s residency program, Gupta set up her own clinic in Kolkata and has treated more than 6,000 patients for lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes. Asked about Chowdhury’s March 24 coronavirus video, in which he rejects the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control, she said, “I have complete faith in him.”
India has long had problems with unlicensed doctors selling their services. According to the Indian Medical Association, there are around 1,000,000 quack doctors in the country, and a 2016 World Health Organization report estimates that nearly 58 percent of Indian doctors practicing Western medicine are unlicensed. Quacks wield huge influence over certain sectors of the electorate, which makes it hard for the government to muster the political will to address the problem, Anil Bansal, a former regulator with the Delhi Medical Council, told The BMJ. While doctors who fail to present valid credentials can be fined and imprisoned under Indian law, they have benefitted from a lack of oversight by the Central Council for Indian Medicine, a statutory body that promotes and regulates Ayurvedic, Siddha, and Unani medicine.
In March, another self-proclaimed medical practitioner, “Healer Baskar,” was taken into custody by police in the state of Tamil Nadu after a clip of him sharing conspiracy theories about COVID-19 went viral. Like Chowdhury, Baskar is as effusive in his praise of self-healing as he is damning of Western medicine. In audio recordings and videos to his half-million YouTube subscribers, he has described the coronavirus as the result of an Illuminati conspiracy to depopulate the world. Teasing a potential COVID-19 cure, he urged followers to sign up for his five-day health camp.
Just hours after Chowdhury’s meeting with Vardhan, photos of the influencer presenting the minister with his book HIV-AIDS: Greatest Lie of the 21st Century were splashed across social media. “Great to see you with our Health Minister. Lastly [sic] the government recognises you,” wrote Ram Krushna Mandal, one of Chowdhury’s Facebook followers. A month later, on World Health Day, Chowdhury published Corona: The Scandal of the Millennium, an e-book of home remedies for the coronavirus and claimed that COVID-19 was a scheme spearheaded by the WHO on behalf of China. Since its release on April 7, it has been downloaded more than 70,000 times.
Chowdhury has built bonds with his viewers by comforting them. His videos reduce anxiety and give people the impression that they have some control over their lives. “My intention is, if a patient comes to me once, they should never return again. It’s a permanent treatment,” Chowdury says. Even so, he seems to have no shortage of new clients, and his fan base is growing. In these dark times, he is offering a sense of security. Even if it’s false, sometimes that’s all people want.