A veritable gallimaufry of misinformation impedes the fight against coronavirus. Will clapping kill the virus? Can air conditioning spread it? Can vegetables be carriers? Each query has its roots in rumour bruited around on social media, and these are some that people have posed to a team of hundred-plus scientists that have united to combat hoaxes related to coronavirus. The members discuss every question and then put out a definitive response in the form of a poster on social media, on WhatsApp, and their website.
The idea was first mooted by R. Ramanujam of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, in an email marked to several people in the scientific community. The response was encouraging. The group calls itself Indian Scientists’ Response to COVID-19, though the term ‘hoax busters’ have clung to them too. It’s a nomenclature thay accept with humility.
“We have two objectives. One is to fight misinformation being peddled. For example, somebody says there is cure for corona virus in traditional medicine. It’s just not true,” says T.V. Venkateshwaran, a member who works with Vigyan Prasar, an organisation under the Department of Science and Technology that works to popularise science. The second objective, Venkateshwaran adds, is to combat claims with weak evidence. “There were news reports claiming that there is a different strain of virus in India and it’s not as dangerous. The scientific paper it was based on did not exactly say that. Now these kinds of things can impact public policy and lead to people lowering their guard.”
The team has made sets of posters in 15 different languages and promotes them aggressively on social media. Some graphic designers and science students have volunteered to design and translate the posters. As the group has members from varied science and research institutions, each response has gone through the rigour of debate and discussion by experts of
different disciplines. The informal, voluntary group have the simplest of objectives in these complex, uncertain times: to provide the right kind of information. “People are asking questions. That is what we wanted,” says Venkateshwaran.