As coronavirus cases spike, social media battles the epidemic of fakes

In the midst of the countrywide panic and pandemonium over coronavirus, social media platforms have been grappling with a problem of their own. A sharp spike in fake news—posts on how the prime minister’s call to applaud those at the frontlines of the fight back was timed so as to purify the air and improve blood circulation were shared widely. Ditto for all news about how Indians are leading the fight against the virus with ayurvedic and homeopathic cures and for conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus.

The industry of fakes is bustling even as everything else is shutting down. Worse, none is exempt from its influence. For instance several celebrities gave wide currency to tweets that claimed that the prime minister had deliberately chosen 5 p.m. as the time for the applause because the country was moving under a particular constellation of stars that would imbue the clapping and applauding exercise with special miraculous potency to help fight the virus. After celebrities with hundreds and thousands of followers shared the post and retweeted it, Twitter and PIB rushed in to douse the fires with hashtags that debunked such notions. This is of course, just the tip of the iceberg. A plethora of home remedies have been swirling the airwaves as tried and tested cures or divine prescriptions to kill the virus.

On Friday, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) wrote to social media platforms to “inform their users not to host, display, upload, modify publish, transmit, update or share any information that may affect public order and (is) unlawful in any way.”

For the media platforms, it is a fraught moment. While usage peaks in times of anxiety, their inability to cross check every piece of information coursing through their highways makes it impossible to stop the flow of fakes. Doing nothing is not an option either, given the critical nature of the present crisis and also because the platforms have spent the most part of the past year running trust-building campaigns in the country.

As a combat strategy, thus far, the platforms have decided to outsource the trust problem. Hand over the handle to the experts seems to be the best way forward for most.

TikTok, owned by Chinese firm ByteDance, has tied up with the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO posts informative videos and has hosted two livestreams on March 17 and 19 that featured information about COVID-19. It was watched across 70 markets by almost 350,000 users. On Twitter a hunt for Covid19 or coronavirus (and other related terms) leads one to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) or the WHO. Facebook and Instagram too have a similar option. Google has tied up with MoHFW and launched “Do the Five,” a campaign around key precautions to prevent contracting and spreading the virus. It has also issued push notifications on the Google app for Android and iOS (Apple) users in India highlighting this information.

On YouTube, Google has a promotional card on the Homepage that links out to the MoHFW website for up-to-date information.  Search results and videos about coronavirus also appear alongside information from reliable sources like the WHO, and curated playlists on topics from tips for preventing spread of the virus, to working from home more effectively are prominently displayed.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp has partnered with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and MoHFW to launch a chatbot that deals with virus-related anxieties. This is similar to one that it has globally, with the WHO.

The MyGov Corona Helpdesk was launched last week and works on an IVR-like interface that lets users select the information they want by choosing the options provided.

There also campaigns and challenges being posted on Twitter and TikTok, some have the support of WHO and local governments while some have been initiated by the marketing teams of big brands. Some initiatives are global, such as the #SafeHands challenge, while some are local and supported by the big brands.

No doubt, say experts, the social media platforms have rushed in with tightened communication controls and stronger protocols this time around, but is it enough?

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