Coronavirus was created in a lab in Wuhan. Drinking alcohol cures the virus. Cow urine will kill the virus. Indians have better immune systems to fight Coronavirus. These are all false claims and we’re willing to bet you have come across at least one of these ‘news’ in the last few weeks as the world currently reels under a global pandemic.
Coronavirus has reached almost every country on earth, infecting millions and leaving behind weaker immune systems. Without a vaccine or a cure, the invisible virus has swept through the world in one large wave, and with it, came something else: fake news.
Whether it was an intricately detailed conspiracy theory about how the virus is ‘modified’ or a half-baked theory about how hydroxychloroquine is a definite cure, fake news about the pandemic is adding to the already dire situation.
“You need someone to debunk it. Who better than scientists?” says R. Ramanujam, a professor at Indian Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and one of the coordinators of Indian Scientists’ Response to CoViD-19, or ISRC.
ISRC, a collective of scientists who are debunking hoaxes regarding the pandemic, started as a small group of around 20. It was started by a few scientists reaching out to each other a couple of days before the nation-wide lockdown was announced, the same time that the initial wave of fake news had started flooding in, courtesy India’s popular messaging app, WhatsApp.
Even though the email chains started as a ‘how can scientists contribute’ initiative, they soon realized a huge part of the problem wasn’t the need to theorize, it was to help break down theories, specifically those of fake news.
ISCR’s website explains the purpose: “The scientific community has a social and democratic responsibility in the current situation, both in terms of analysing the situation and reaching out to the public. While governmental bodies make their decisions and professional scientific academies take principled stands, there is a need for individuals in the scientific community to also help individually and collectively.”
Now the collective stands at over 500 people, with at least 400 of them having academic affiliations of some kind. This collective involves medical researchers, biologists, physicists, social scientists, mathematicians and many more to deal with the curveball of fake news headed their way.
Ramanujam says the biggest problem hasn’t been debunking the news. “It’s the numbers,” he said. In India, WhatsApp messages, or in this case ‘forwards’, is often a large section of the population’s news source. And this often becomes the platform for fake news because of the easy way of communication.
“We debunk maybe one or two myths in a day, but by that time you’ve already received five other fake forwards on your phone,” he explains.
The methodology to debunking fake news is simple – they spot something which is based on somewhat real facts and then proceeds to break it down. “All fake news is based on some grain of truth, you need to find just that and then break down the myths around it,” he says. However, some myths are too outrageous or ridiculous to even debunk.
Once identified, the fake news then undergoes fact-checking, then a round of vetting, and there is an elaborate discussion before the actual infographic is put out.
The infographic is also re-created in 14 different languages: English, Urdu, Portugese, Tamil, Bengali, Malayalam, and other Indian languages. Even in the process of simple translation, there is a round of vetting, to make sure there is no content that is left dicey – it has to be foolproof.
Often, fake news countered with the truth seems faulty to disbelievers, and they find the one chink in the armour to break it open – which is why the team leaves no room for error.
There are multiple people working on busting the same fake news at the same time, sitting across the length and breadth of the country and some across the borders as well.
“We couldn’t have planned this,” explains Ramanujam. The process of coming together was organic, and it worked in more ways than one.
For every kind of specific news, there are people with designated skillsets best suited for the topic. For the difference in data, or theorizing outputs from numbers and news on that, there are mathematicians and statisticians, and for the constantly changing news like whether masks are necessary and the transfer is via droplets or aerosols, there are virologists.
The infographics are also circulated on the platform where the fake news originates: WhatsApp. Ramanujam explains how scientists in collaboration with science programs and networks which already have a vast reach via science communication, help distribute the graphics.
“Fake news brings to light the need to cross-check. The general public may not be as used to it, but scientists have been doing this for years. You have to cross-validate your information, to make sure it’s correct,” he adds.
In times when a global pandemic is raging through the planet, the need for correct information becomes the most important. And scientists have turned into heroes, saving us from the pandemic and the fake news on the pandemic.