The coronavirus outbreak has created fear and panic among the populace as it has already infected over 2,000 people and taken the lives of at least 56 in India while its global tally has crossed the mark of over one million cases, with at least 53,000 fatalities. But what’s spreading even faster than the deadly virus over the Internet is fake news and misinformation related to COVID-19, the disease that caused by the Novel Coronavirus (SARS-Cov-2).
For many people, Wikipedia is the first port of call to learn about these kinds of subjects, and misinformation on the Wiki can have grave consequences. That’s why the organisation is putting extra resources towards limiting fake news circulation by offering information related to the virus and its disease in Indic languages through Project SWASTHA (an abbreviation of Special Wikipedia Awareness Scheme for The Healthcare Affiliates).
Abhishek Suryawanshi, Founder and Director of Wikipedia’s Project SWASTHA, spoke to Gadgets 360 over a video conference in order to detail how the initiative can help fight fake news spreading online, and provide trustworthy information to the masses in India. The project was started last year with an aim to provide health information on Wikipedia on 10 different topics in 10 different languages of India. However, while the team was yet to kick off its operations in late November and early December, the coronavirus outbreak started emerging. This shifted the team’s interest towards the pandemic entirely.
During the conversation, Suryawanshi highlighted that Wikipedia has the reach that is 10 times more than the traffic received by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) websites and 300 times more traffic than Indian government’s official website. This opens an avenue to share what’s useful for the people.
He also emphasised that Wikipedia is complementary to the government sources since it provides the reach, while the official authorities give reliable information for the masses.
Lane Raspberry, a Data Scientist at the University of Virginia, who’s been editing articles on Wikipedia for over 10 years and is one of the key faces behind the team that is editing information around the coronavirus outbreak, also joined the conversation. He underlined that Wikipedia editors rely on experts such as different agencies and the Indian government to identify the most important health information that can be shared through the platform.
Edited excerpts from the conversation below.
Gadgets 360: What is the role of Wikipedia in the public health crisis like what we are facing right now?
Raspberry: Wikipedia as a media channel is highly accessible. And if experts and organisations share their information in Wikipedia, then it reaches the largest available audience that the internet has to offer.
Suryawanshi: People in India highly rely on Wikipedia — starting from their early education days. And especially even recently, the Ministry of Commerce also referred to Wikipedia in the official Economic Survey. And it’s not just India, it’s a similar trend throughout the globe, you can see the trend. Wikipedia does not spend any money in advertising itself. People organically come to Wikipedia. This is unlike YouTube or any other platform. In terms of numbers, Wikipedia is receiving 10 times more traffic even than the sites of CDC and WHO combined. We have 300 times more traffic than Indian government’s official website. It’s because people feel like they belong on Wikipedia.
What are the problems in your views that misinformation can cause in case of an outbreak like the coronavirus pandemic?
Suryawanshi: Misinformation means a lot especially in India where every morning people send WhatsApp forwards to their contacts. Therefore, I don’t think getting information is a challenge, at least in India. Everyone even has Information about COVID-19. But it’s more about whether they have the right kind of information. That’s the question right now. And that’s where Wikipedia gives information in simple words.
How do you think that Wikipedia can be a helpful source for fighting misinformation right now?
Raspberry: Fake news is a problem in every Internet channel. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, all of them have this problem in place. Wikipedia has it as well. But one way Wikipedia is different and it is that all the data in Wikipedia is free and open. So anyone can look at who has added every single sentence or comment anywhere in Wikipedia, find out who did that and do research and analysis on it. So while in Facebook, for example, most of the research is done by Facebook staff, Wikipedia lets anyone can edit also and anyone can do the research on the data to say who said what, and where misconduct or misinformation might be coming from.
Suryawanshi: And also for all the languages on Wikipedia, there is a feature called locking the article. It simply means the article can be edited by the editors who have crossed a certain threshold, like 10 or 20 edits. There are like different categories of protecting a page. So that’s not what people think like, oh, anyone can wake up in the morning and edit it. It’s not as simple as that.
What’s the scope of Project SWASTHA? How would it help eradicate the circulation of fake news and invalid health information that we currently have through various social media sources?
Suryawanshi: Over 10 lakh people are reading one article every day on Wikipedia, and they have the option to correct something if something is wrong. When it comes to the government agencies, we have officially listed the Ministry of Health’s website which is seeing on all the language Wikipedias and most of the traffic, if you do the traffic analysis of the Ministry of Health’s website, it is getting redirected from Wikipedia itself. So I feel like it’s a both complimentary situation. The Government of India has authentic sources. They have a lot of information. Whereas on Wikipedia, we have the exact opposite problem. We have a wider reach, but content is an issue for us.
What were your plans with the Project SWASTHA before the COVID-19 outbreak?
Suryawanshi: We conducted workshops — one in December in Mumbai, where we had Wikipedia editors from top 10 Indian languages as well as healthcare experts who talked to each other to discuss various health and wellness related topics. We were planning to conduct those in 10 different cities, and educate and empower existing Wikipedia volunteer community, government authorities, and create a new generation of volunteers who can keep writing healthcare content from Wikipedia. Moving forward, we do have the plan to conduct a lot of such workshops and give tools to people so they can contribute healthcare information.
How can the Project SWASTHA be helpful for citizens as well as for the authorities in the present scenario?
Suryawanshi: For authorities as well as citizens Wikipedia’s language is very easy to use. WHO will have information about COVID-19, but Wikipedia has dedicated articles such as the COVID-19 outbreak in Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh. So we have timelines for pretty much all these states. There are three aspects, namely the virus, disease, and outbreak, We are focusing on all these three aspects and within those also we have subsections in local languages. So more emphasis is given on the local state and local languages, and local culture. We are also partnering with local universities and are in touch with different government agencies. If they see something is wrong, or if they want to push it to a larger audience, they reach out to us because many physicians as well as officials, they have a lot of knowledge.
What are the key challenges in making health-related information available to the masses in the country?
Raspberry: There’s a disbalance. Wikipedia does the distribution and we don’t have to concern ourselves so much with identifying the content. There are subject matter experts whose job it is to identify the most important health information. These experts could be from different agencies, the Indian government, different universities within India, and organisations like the World Health Organization. So all our job is to find out who’s the leading authority in the field, then find out what information it is that they’re sharing, and then we integrate it in Wikipedia.
Is there any criteria for selecting contributors for the Project?
Raspberry: Anybody can add.
Suryawanshi: Anybody can add and that’s how the system works. We welcome everyone on our platform and then we connect them together in a systematic way. There are doctors as well who have busy schedules. After getting passed from the doctors, the volunteers make necessary corrections in the content. It then goes back to the healthcare professional. And after that, we also work with professional translators as well as volunteer translators. They go through the draft and then, it goes to the local healthcare professional because local sensitivity language is also there. For something which is called in a textbook say Marathi or Hindi, might not be the actual term which people will relate when they go and read it on Wikipedia. So that’s where we have these different people who can come and be part of it. So depending on the interest, we are welcoming everyone, and we just work with everyone to make sure we fight this battle against misinformation on the Web.
How does a team of contributors decide which content they should pick for translation and which content they should avoid?
Raspberry: We try to match the Wikipedia article with whatever the authority recommends that we should share. One way to check the quality of the Wikipedia article is to look at the references at the bottom and see that this is what one would expect and often after we’re finished editing Wikipedia article and ask the subject matter expert that do you think that this article is representing the sources that you would expect to see from your field as an expert. Wikipedia has a Manual of Style. And I would say that this is something that perhaps is a bit unusual for Wikipedia as compared to other outlets in that we have information from different sources. So something that you’ll see in Wikipedia, and this diverges a bit from medical articles. This is also true in case of our COVID-19 content because we’re not getting any traditional journals just don’t have stories about how the disease is manifesting in India, we have to rely a bit on local journalism to get these kinds of stories.
Suryawanshi: In other simple words, say in order to record the number of deaths, we won’t cite anyone’s Facebook account or Twitter account. We always cite the Government of India’s official account or official statistics.
How does the content team examine all the content that they received before making live to the public?
Suryawanshi: In terms of references, we have like these COVID-19 articles, there are only the editors who have a certain kind of expertise and trust within the system, they can edit them. But that doesn’t mean like we are not welcoming anyone. People can join us in editing other articles. And then anyone can be a part of it. We have a certain criteria, which everyone needs to follow, though. Also, Wikipedia goes by references. If anyone comes up with excellent information, but there is no reference for it, then that information won’t be used.
Raspberry: Anyone can edit Wikipedia and we don’t check people’s credentials. What we check is the reliability of the source which they cite.
Are the contributors and their articles being vetted as well?
Raspberry: We never screen the contributors, anyone can create and edit content on Wikipedia. So they might be anyone in the world.
Suryawanshi: A fifth grader can write a great one sentence about COVID-19 with a reference, whereas a PhD expert can write the same sentence without the reference. The Wikipedia community will go with someone who is giving a sentence with a reference because that’s the basic DNA of Wikipedia — reference and citation. So we will never ask, who are you? We will, instead, ask what kind of information you have and who gave you that information? As long as these two things match the content goes live
What are the plans towards expanding language support?
Suryawanshi: We would love to expand, but we are just two months old project. When we started, the COVID-19 outbreak just happened. We started with maternal health articles and we started working with different organisations like government authorities, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as other organisations. And when it comes to languages, it is important to reach out. We are encouraging more and more people to write healthcare content. And it is very important because it’s writing a history. After 10-15 years, when people come online, they are going to see what’s happening right now. Let’s say COVID-19, people will learn about its effect and expansion through Wikipedia. We are, thus, requesting organisations to share information.
Lastly, how is India different in terms of the information sources from the global markets?
Suryawanshi: There will be more people accessing the Web in Hindi as compared to English by 2021, as per the recent Google-KPMG survey. More and more people are already coming online. Initially, there were like more consumers and now we have more content creators as well. So moving in two to three years ahead, I feel like the Internet will be dominated by Indian languages and Indians. We are already seeing the trends everywhere and we hope the same thing will continue on Wikipedia because we have so many readers from India, but we don’t have those many contributors because of lack of awareness and there are so many different aspects to it. So that’s what would be a dream come true situation in upcoming years and India is very special because the internet is pretty new in most of the rural areas and more and more people are coming online.