#fakenews isn’t just a U.S. thing. And it isn’t just about politics. In India people are putting their health at risk by following spurious advice dispensed on forwards on Whatsapp, the phone-based messaging app.
Here’s one popular hoax making the rounds: an image of a blister pack of pills, warning recipients to avoid certain brands of the pain reliever acetaminophen because “doctors advise that it contains ‘Machupo’ virus, one of the most dangerous viruses in the world, with a high mortality rate.” The Whatsapp forward ends: “I’ve done my part, now it’s your turn … remember that God helps those who help others and themselves!”
Dr. Ranjit Mankeshwar, a professor of preventative medicine in one of Mumbai’s leading medical colleges, says he gets asked about information sourced from Whatsapp frequently.
“I see cures for arthritis, diabetes, supplements to avoid angioplasty being passed around.”
All of it, he says, is “absolutely rubbish. Someone will tell you to make juice out of papaya leaves [to cure dengue fever] or stop diabetes medication and eat basil — and people actually want to try it!”
To address this insidious tide of misinformation, two software engineers have set up Check4Spam, the Snopes of India. The site, founded by Shammas Oliyath and Bal Krishn Birla in Bangalore, publishes rebuttals and research for the medical misinformation being forwarded on Whatsapp.
“We receive 200-odd messages a day” asking if information in a Whasapp message is correct, says Oliyath, who handles the fact-checking and general myth-busting. Birla handles the technology and traffic promotion.
People forward the forwards they want verified to a Check4Spam Whatsapp account. Oliyath, a full-time employee at IBM, says he scans them during his lunch break. His first stop is an online search. If the hoax is a version of something already on Snopes or Hoax-slayer, he can quickly post a brief description and share the links that explain why it’s bogus.
“Or if I see a post we previously debunked, I reply with a link already saved I answer those queries during lunch time. The ones we have to debunk — do research and figure out — I put off until I finish my work and get home,” he says.
Launched a little more than a year ago, Check4Spam has seen its traffic triple in the past month — aided by local publicity. Now Check4spam gets 250,000 unique visitors monthly. Along with Check4Spam, a couple other services to combat fake news have sprung up in India in the past few months. BoomLive has a fake news section, and SMHoax posts the latest Whatsapp forwards with a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Why do Indians love forwarding these messages?
First of all, it’s easy to do. India has more than 2 million smartphones — and for less than 50 cents a month, customers can buy a data bundle with the Whatsapp messaging app. So Whatsapp has become a primary mode of communication for a large part of the country.
Oliyath notes that India doesn’t have a culture of questioning and verifying shared information.
And the messages might seem legit because alternative medicine is part of Indian culture, says Mankeshwar.
“In the West, you’re either a physician or surgeon or you’re not. Here we’ve got homeopathy, naturopathy, Ayurveda, Yunani medicine, besides modern evidence-based healthcare,” he says.
“Then there is this idea in India that homespun therapies or advice handed down over generations is more valuable: a sacred truth is contained, it will restore our health,” he says.
H. Asrani, a family medicine practitioner, says he, too, spends a lot of time counseling patients who have “alternate information” gleaned from Whatsapp forwards. “The forwards are clever. They use a mix of jargon, fact and fiction, so it sounds authoritative,” he says.
The Check4Spam site is really good, Asrani continues. “They’ve done a good job backing up their takedowns with evidence and research. People who are skeptical about the forwards can see the facts, not look at yet another opinion.”
“This effort is really great,” says Mankeshwar, but he sounds a cautionary note: “What is their reach compared to mom, dad, apartment groups and family groups and alumni groups on Whatsapp forwarding this junk all day? We need to aggressively counteract it, because it’s harmful.”
As for who’s behind the barrage of medical hoaxes, that’s hard to figure out. “Certain posts drive you to [a] website or YouTube videos, like the one that claims tomato ketchup is made out of urine and blood,” Oliyath says. “These videos drive revenue, with the play they get monetized. But [suggesting salt water baths to prevent] Ebola and stuff, I can’t understand.”
Check4Spam is funded by personal funds and revenue earned via ads on the site. But the crush of visitors is challenging.
“It’s nice to see, but it’s hard to keep pace,” Oliyath says. “We don’t want to discourage people coming to us but the only worry is, I can’t handle the traffic. The site has six volunteers and we’re working on an app to automate some stuff,” like checking if a query already exists in the database.
For the future, they’re thinking about crowdsourcing to bring in funding and getting other debunkers to contribute their findings, in multiple languages
Chhavi Sachdev is a journalist based in Mumbai. Contact her @chhavi