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Scientists discuss ways to bust misinformation and fake news about Covid-19

By Snehal Fernandes, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON MAR 27, 2020 12:20 AM IST

At 2pm on Thursday, eleven researchers from scientific institutes across the country connected on a conference call to discuss ways to bust misinformation and fake news surrounding CoVid-19 outbreak that has pushed India into a 21-day lockdown mode. Over the next 75 minutes, discussions centred round the pandemic and ways to address messages of questionable authenticity and hoaxes doing the rounds on various social media platforms.

With campuses shut and laboratories closed for work, Indian researchers over the last few days have come together and created an informal network to disseminate information on the science of coronavirus and dispel myths on the cure of the disease.

The ‘Indian Scientists’ Response to CoViD-19 (ISRC) – it is a voluntary group from various parts of the country – will “act as scientific interpreters for the public at large” as the situation rapidly evolves both within and outside India.

“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,” reads a statement on their portal https://indscicov.in/.

“ISRC will address different aspects of the epidemic. Myth busting is one aspect. Making sense of the science of it and making it accessible in both layman’s language and all regional languages is another aspect,” said Dr Reeteka Sud, coordinator for social media ISRC, and neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru.

Sud added, “We are also talking about how scientists will help when India gets hit hard. So there is also a larger framework of scientists connecting with state and local administrations through their home institutions.”

In addition to analysing all data available in the public domain and providing scientific resources to activists who are working in the ground, ISRC will make available in all Indian languages curated and verified information to the public. Plans are also afoot to provide a social media platform at a designated time where citizens can pose queries to scientific and health experts and clear doubts.

Aniket Sule, astrophysicist, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, who was on the conference call, said a lot of misinformation is floating around, and therefore there was a need for scientists to step up and inform the public on what they should or should not believe.

“We are yet to classify about 40 to 50 different forwards received from various sources. Some claim different cures for coronavirus either from traditional medicine or modern medicines, but none of them are based on sufficient evidence. Some have strange claims on the virus’ origin, spread and future movement, while some have connected astrology and numerology to it,” said Sule, “We will address each of the claims separately.”

Mental health experts said providing accurate information, and dispelling rumours and misinformation on CoVid-18 is vital to reduce anxiety among people. Reason – gadgets are the only connection to the outside world while being confined indoors owing to the lockdown.

The Service for Healthy use of Technology (SHUT) clinic at NIMHANS, which works towards de-addiction of internet-based technology devices, found that the use of technology among their patients increased by least 30% after reports of Indians testing positive for COVID-19.

“The receptivity to rumours is high when anxiety is high, which increases the need to share information irrespective of whether it is true or false,” said Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, coordinator at SHUT, and faculty for clinical psychology, NIMHANS. “People should therefore check for facts and verify information on CoVid-19 that is coming to them via social media platforms.”

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