New Delhi: As misinformation and fake news about the coronavirus pandemic sweeps social media, a team of scientists, graphic designers and translators from across India has come together as “hoaxbusters” to debunk false information on the virus.
The initiative began last week under the umbrella of the Indian Scientists’ Response to Covid-19 (ISRC). The team has since released a set of 18 posters in 15 languages, including English, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Assamese, Odiya, Manipuri, Nepali, Punjabi, Konkani, Urdu, Khasi, Kannada and Gujarati that busts false information.
“Scientists, including astronomers from IUCAA-Pune and the IIT-Bombay worked to automate the process of generation of images in all languages,” said Aniket Sule, an astrophysicist and science educator at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education.
Arresting the spread of misinformation is as important as arresting the spread of Covid-19, the team believes.
Some of the myths which these hoaxbusters are trying to tackle include — “the novel coronavirus was made in a lab”, “use of cow urine or cow dung will protect me from coronavirus”, “astrologers have given important inputs towards our understanding of the disease” and “the virus cannot spread too widely in India as we have warmer weather”.
The team debunks each myth with the right information, reasonable explanations and scientific evidence.
Their cause is collaborative and anyone can send information she or he believes could be fake on the firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dibyendu Nandi, an astrophysicist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, said, “Some misinformation takes off and some do not. When some misinformation finds resonance and reinforces previously held beliefs, a critical number of people share or retweet it.”
‘Spreading scientific awareness’
The hoaxbusters’ aim is not limited to debunking fake news.
R. Ramanujam, theoretical computer scientist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai and coordinator of ISRC, said, “Our group not only tries to debunk the hoaxes that are going viral but is also spreading general scientific awareness by various other means. This is critical since the success of measures coming from the government depends on citizens playing their role rationally.”
He added, “A nanometre-sized virus has brought the world to its heels. For the person on the street, this is hard to fathom.”
The government of India has also undertaken measures to curb fake news. In its lockdown order issued on 24 March, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) refers to Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, which says: “Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic, shall on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.”
As of Monday, India enters day 13 of a nationwide lockdown and there are 3,666 active coronavirus cases. While 291 people have been cured, 109 have died so far.