The misinformation bubble is threatening Brazil’s indigenous population

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According to Juliana Gragnani, BBC News Brasil, false information is being sent via WhatsApp from politicians and preachers to remote Amazon villages.

A helicopter carrying health workers and coronavirus vaccine dosages was loaded from Labrea in the Amazon’s southern region. It took off to take it to a village about 50km away.

The villagers of Jamamadi, an indigenous Jamamadi tribe, welcomed the chopper with bows, arrows, and demanded it leave.

After hearing false rumors about vaccines, they wanted to be reassured by a religious missionary (not doctors) before being jabbed. The helicopter departed without administering any doses.

Fragile relationship

Several sources described the incident to BBC News Brasil in February. They asked not to be identified because they feared it would upset the delicate relationship between indigenous people and health professionals.

We spoke with people who said that although armed welcoming parties are rare, they worry about the spread of vaccine rumours to native people via mobile phones.

Brazil has many mobile phone companies that offer free access to Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. However, other websites and networks can be charged for.

Experts say WhatsApp, a common source for family and community news, is a problem.

Chat apps tend to be populated by people we trust most. However, data packages can discourage people from double-checking their health information, especially those who are cash-strapped.

Anapuaka Tupinamba, an indigenous journalist, says WhatsApp allowed for “a leap” in education and politics for the people of Indigenous People. However, she calls technology “a double-edged blade”.

“What we have is a fake internet. Anapuaka states that fake news is impossible to verify. It feels almost like I’m online, but it’s not. “I feel almost connected to the intranet of large companies.”

Anapuaka cites a recent example on the app – a tale about 900 indigenous Xingu persons dying after being given a vaccine. It was false.

Information sources

Many of the negative vaccine information that circulates on WhatsApp is not coming from the villager but rather from politicians and religious leaders.

This includes Brazil’s President.

Jair Bolsonaro stated in September that “Nobody can force” me to get the vaccine. He declared the following month: “The Brazilian people won’t be anyone else’s guinea-pig.” He said that he wasn’t going get the vaccine and that was it.

He seemed to echo the bizarre and false claims made by anti-vaccine groups online about Covid vaccines altering DNA.

“If you become an Alligator, it is your problem. If a woman gets a beard, or a man has a thin voice, they [pharmaceutical firms] will have nothing to say about it.”

Indianara Machado from Brazil’s Central West region, a nurse, said that it was these kinds of statements that resonated the most with indigenous communities.

“People in the village are asking themselves, “If the president didn’t take it [the vaccine], then how can we take it?” She says.

“The beast’s chip”

The influence of religious missionaries and the evangelical churches in indigenous territories is considerable. Some have even spread vaccine lies, but not all.

Indianara Machado claims that many of the viral videos were of indigenous pastors telling people not get the vaccine. They declared it to be “the beast’s microchip”. This brings to mind false rumours about vaccines including chips that track and enslave.

Pastor Henrique Terena is the president of the National Council of Evangelical Indigenous Pastors and Leaders. He says there is a neo-Pentecostal section in Central-West that believes vaccines are bad and that they are from Satan, and that their members shouldn’t get the jab.

He says that his members are not the problem and that anti-vaccine pastors “claim” to have evangelical faith.