As the drummer of the Indonesian punk band Superman Is Dead, I Gede Ari Astina, better known as Jerinx, always relished making headlines for rebellious acts. His most recent, and most controversial: becoming one of Indonesia’s leading anti-vaxxers.
“Those who don’t believe that this covid is just a business scheme may still believe that America has landed on the moon and 9/11 is [initiated] by Muslims,” he wrote to his over 1 million Instagram followers in April 2020, as the country’s case count began to pick up speed.
Over the course of the pandemic, Jerinx has made a practice of sharing coronavirus conspiracy theories with his followers on Instagram and Twitter. Since last year, he has instructed them that the pandemic is an exaggeration: a plot by a cabal of global elites, including the Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.
He is, said Indonesian misinformation analyst Ismail Fahmi, one of the two most influential people in spreading health misinformation in the country — the other being a former Indonesian health minister. Fahmi runs the data consultancy company Drone Emprit, which has mapped the spread of conspiracy theories and anti-vaccination campaigns in Indonesia, where cases spiked dangerously in July.
Jerinx’s followers listen to him. Swantara Putera, an architect and close friend of Jerinx who lives in Bali, told Rest of World that the musician’s views were behind his decision not to get vaccinated — although he has allowed his children to get the jab. “I believe in Covid-19, but what makes it significantly different is, I believe that this virus is not that dangerous,” Putera said.
Jerinx was eventually jailed in November 2020 for defaming the Indonesian Medical Association under an online hate speech law. Released in June, his Twitter has since disappeared without explanation, and his Instagram has been replaced by a new account.
Across the region, governments have enacted “fake news” legislation to force platforms to remove questionable content and to punish users who create or spread it. But most of this is designed to address public channels of social media — platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.
Private, encrypted platforms like Telegram are another story. There, anti-vax conspiracy content continues to thrive, encouraging vaccine hesitancy across Southeast Asia, even as a fresh wave of the virus hits the region. In Indonesia, 35% of people said they would delay getting the jab for religious or safety reasons. In Singapore, a survey found that more than 50% of people were worried about the vaccine’s safety, and only two-thirds were willing to get inoculated. In the Philippines, only 43% of people were willing to take the vaccine.
All of which means that even as authorities continue to target individual sources of misinformation like Jerinx, legislating away the growing volume of coronavirus misinformation is becoming ever more complex.
“In general, legislative approaches may have limited efficacy because of four ‘Vs’,” Shawn Goh, a research assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore, and an expert on online misinformation, told Rest of World.
“The sheer volume of vaccine misinformation circulating; the velocity at which they spread; the variety of forms it takes, diverse countries of origin and platforms they circulate on; and the visceral feelings of fear and anxiety evoked by vaccine misinformation that cannot simply be legislated away.”
The SG Suspected Vaccine Injuries Telegram channel has more than 8,600 members. Throughout the day, it hosts a continuous stream of stories, ostensibly out of Singapore, of people claiming that getting vaccinated led to health complications, some of them extreme — brain aneurysms, aplastic anemia, heart attacks. Some cases are self-reported; others are posted by the group’s admins, who told Rest of World they collect the testimony from Facebook or from an encrypted ProtonMail address that they have set up for the purpose. While a handful of members do openly question the veracity of the cases, the overall tone of the group is strongly vaccine-skeptic.
“We do not give any medical advice, we do not advise people whether to take the jab or not,” said one of the admins, Tan, who agreed to be interviewed on condition that her first name would not be published. “They decide on their own.”
In Singapore, the government has used its Protection from Online Falsehoods and Misinformation Act (POFMA) to compel websites and social media platforms to take down anti-vaccination messaging. The Telegram channel’s administrators told Rest of World that the law forced their move onto the encrypted platform, and that they simply wanted to raise questions over the speed of Singapore’s vaccine rollout — around 53% of the population has been fully vaccinated since its program began in January. The administrators voiced their mistrust for “mainstream media,” in which they included Facebook and YouTube, and suggested that Big Tech has conspired with pharmaceutical companies to hide “the truth.”
In a related Singaporean Telegram group, SG Covid La Kopi (over 4,800 members), the discussion is far less tethered to reality. The channel consists of a stream of content, mainly shared from U.S. sources, repeating debunked claims — that the vaccine causes people to become magnetic; that the antiparasitic drug Ivermectin could treat Covid-19; that the vaccine contains cells from aborted fetuses — and co-opting pre-existing conspiracy theories involving “the Illuminati” and the “New World Order.”
Much of their messaging resembles content on Philippine and Indonesian social media, which is based around the premise that big business either created the pandemic, is exaggerating the impact, or is rushing out unsafe vaccines and treatments for profit.
“Jerinx and his followers are living in his bubble of internet hyperreality,” Antonius Made Supriatma, a Visiting Fellow with the Indonesia Studies Programme at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, told Rest of World. Former Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari, on the other hand, is an ultranationalist, and “a politician who wants to exploit everything,” he said. “What she did is immoral.”
Alan B. Godinez, 51, is a local volunteer worker in Tondo, Manila, and a heavy Facebook user. Speaking with Rest of World, he explained that, despite suffering from hypertension and diabetes and having already registered for a vaccine, he is concerned by the reports he’s read on social media. “There’s a lot of posts where people are saying they experience negative side effects. They [had seizures], couldn't breathe, all this negative stuff,” he said. “I don’t know if these are true, but there’s a lot of these posts and it makes me worry.”
Godinez also repeated a common concern that the vaccines have been developed too fast for proper safety procedures to have been followed. “Other posts mention a legit vaccine should take at least seven years of testing and development to be sure it’s safe,” he said. “With the Covid-19 vaccine, it’s not even two years yet. If that seven years is true, who knows what the effects of this vaccine has on our bodies?”
Vaccine hesitancy in the Philippines is partly informed by the memory of a disastrous attempt to vaccinate schoolchildren against dengue fever in 2016. Experts say viral misinformation often capitalizes on pre-existing fears, and uses half-truths and misinterpretations of science to lend credibility to false stories.
“Messages coming from authoritative sources are likely to be perceived as credible. Hence, to help gain traction, falsehoods are usually purported to be signed off by experts from reputable institutions,” Alton Chua, associate professor at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, told Rest of World.
Chua said that “dread rumors” are more likely to go viral than hopeful content, and that typically a relatively small number of people are responsible for the majority of viral messages.
Facebook, among the largest social media platforms in the region, has prioritized the removal of anti-vaccination information since December 2020. YouTube banned anti-vaccine videos in October 2020 and has since removed tens of thousands of posts. But posts that sow doubt, rather than disputing the efficacy of vaccines outright, can often remain unflagged.
Singapore’s government has used the POFMA legislation several times to force takedowns of anti-vaccination information, including the removal of several Facebook pages. That has encouraged the move off public platforms and onto encrypted ones.
“We have to use Telegram instead of Facebook because of the massive censorship that is going on [there],” one of the SG Vaccine Injuries group admins told Rest of World. “There is no stability of our survival of the group on FB.” “In Telegram, there are no community guidelines to control the narratives. It’s truly a free world here,” said another.
Telegram did not respond to a request for comment. The platform’s efforts to moderate content have so far involved disabling certain groups when detecting, for example, pornography or religious extremism. It will typically give the group administrators time to rectify the group and be reinstated.
The shift of discussion off easily accessible platforms with stronger moderation mechanisms is concerning, as it makes it harder to identify falsehoods as they emerge and to plan strategies to counter them.
“Fact-checkers and researchers are finding it hard to refute and debunk messages due to the app’s inherent privacy and encryption settings,” said Dymples Leong, Associate Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. “Some people who have been de-platformed on Facebook or YouTube have migrated towards Telegram to further disseminate conspiracy theories. So, such content, which seeks to encourage or heighten vaccine hesitancy, can become an obstacle for countries trying to achieve herd immunity.”
Ishaana Aiyanna, senior analyst at fact-checking group Logically, was critical of Telegram’s ability to balance its appeal as a secure platform with the ability for any real clout against misinformation. More than that, she said, “We dislike Telegram because those groups [spreading misinformation] are accessible easily.” Typing “vaccination” in the search bar quickly leads to any number of anti-vax groups.
In the early 1980s, observed Aiyanna, a polio vaccine drive in India contended with swirling rumours that it was intended to sterilize the Muslim population. “At that point in time, it was maybe a handful of people that knew of such a rumor,” she said. “But now, because of the unfettered way in which social media works, it’s everywhere.”