In the midst of a public health crisis, COVID-19; we find ourselves dependent on the internet for access to reliable medical information. The proliferation of medical misinformation, however, is a growing public health concern that can have serious consequences and can cost lives. From infectious virus to vaccines to cancer drugs and diets, there are tens and thousands of fake health news stories, hoaxes and rumors flooding the internet. While some of this information may only result in a little confusion as to what you should eat or how much exercise you need, others can have more serious effects. For example, as of 29 March, Iran reported more than 200 deaths from the overconsumption of alcohol that surfaced on the internet as prevention for COVID-19. In India, a man committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh allegedly out of fear that he was infected with COVID-19. There is a need for a collaborative approach and action to ensure that people have access to credible information that is backed by evidence and fact-checked by experts.
DataLEADS in partnership with BOOM, and supported by Google News Initiative are pleased to launch “FACT AND FIT – Combating medical misinformation” – a collaborative initiative to combat medical misinformation in India. This initiative is a part of Google’s global initiative to strengthen fact-checking to fight misinformation around the world, with an immediate focus on the COVID-19 outbreak.
The project will adopt a train-the-trainer model, and train a core team of 25 trainers – comprising of journalists, fact-checkers, public health professionals selected from states across India, who will subsequently train health journalists and writers in their respective areas and organizations in seven different languages to detect and debunk health misinformation using a number of fact-checking and online verification tools and strategies.
The initiative will also launch a pilot led by a team of doctors, public health professionals, and health and science journalists to systematically track misinformation online and to identify avenues of misinformation and gaps in the availability of credible health information for specific diseases, starting with COVID-19.
On completion, we expect to train 500 journalists and public health professionals on detecting and debunking health misinformation and piloting a trending topic monitoring project. The result will help calibrate an increase in the output of high-quality information about health that can directly respond to harmful misinformation, and will also provide unique insights into the medical misinformation landscape in India that will hugely benefit other global efforts.
“Helping make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic requires a broad response involving health authorities, journalists, technology platforms and many others. Google News Initiative is delighted to support FACT and FIT and looks forward to learning from its efforts,” said Alexios Mantzarlis- News & Information Credibility Lead at Google News Lab.
H R Venkatesh, Director, Training and Research at BOOM, said, “Medical misinformation is difficult to debunk and important to have experts involved. India is a vast country with multiple languages and it is important to reach as many people in as many languages. This program which supports the training of 500 journalists will exponentially increase the efficacy of fact-checking medical misinformation. We believe the task force will play a critical role and are delighted to be part of this initiative.”
Speaking about the initiative, Syed Nazakat, founder and CEO of DataLEADS said health misinformation is a growing problem, harming public health across the world. “As a society, we need better understanding and research on how health related misinformation spreads,” said Syed Nazakat, founder and CEO of DataLEADS. “We need to empower more journalists and fact-checkers with tools and strategies to limit the spread of health misinformation. We need support from doctors, public health specialists and other stakeholders. As countries grapple with an unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, it is now more important than ever to ensure that the information we receive is accurate.”
We invite health journalists, fact-checkers and public health professionals to apply to our training in fact-checking medical information. Information about the training, and a link for registration are available here.