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Chatbots, microsites and the social media war on coronavirus misinformation

Indian government is tying up with platforms to ensure citizens have access to authentic data and details about the spread of the disease

Neha Alawadhi  |  New Delhi 

fake news, electronic media, social media, media, truth, network effect
Illustration by Ajay Mohanty

With social media networks buzzing with misinformation on the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian government is tying up with social media firms and others to ensure that citizens have access to authentic data and details about the spread of the disease.

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday tweeted the initiatives that Google India, Facebook/WhatsApp and Twitter have taken to ensure people have access to authentic sources of information on COVID-19 and the novel that causes it.

Google has been putting out simple tips on handwashing for Android users, believed to be the best defense against contracting the virus, Twitter India has set up a "dedicated COVID-19 page that provides essential real-time updates to people from various authorities across India," while Facebook-owned WhatsApp has partnered with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to launch a chatbot on the lines of the one launched by the World Health Organisation this past week.

The MyGov Corona Helpdesk, launched late Thursday night, works on an IVR-like interface and lets users choose the information they want by choosing the options provided. It is available at the number +91 9013151515, which, once added to a person's phone contacts will enable them to nteract with the bot by texting "hi".

MyGov, the government's idea crowdsourcing platform (under MeitY), MoHFW and Mumbai-based rim Haptik developed the Helpdesk chatbot within 36 hours. "We already have a microsite carrying important information about the advisories, precautions or travel and so on from the government, but citizens should not get overwhelmed with information. We spoke to top managers at Facebook and arranged approvals in record time to get this helpdesk up and running," said Abhishek Singh, CEO at MyGov.

Facebook India Vice President and Managing Director Ajit Mohan called it a “unique collaboration with the government across multiple ministries”.

Haptik, which launched a similar chatbot of its own to provide information on coronavirus, said the firm worked for about four days to set up the MyGov bot.

"The MyGov Corona Helpdesk is a completely new chatbot that has been built from the ground up. However, there are certain features that resemble the Haptik Helpdesk which went live in February. The Government already has a national helpline number and the WhatsApp chatbot helps broaden the horizon in terms of reaching and spreading the right kind of information to people through a medium that over 400 million Indians utilize. The content and verified information is being provided by the Ministries," said Aakrit Vaish, CEO, Haptik.

The initial response to the helpline was encouraging, said MyGov's Singh. "We worked round the clock to set this up. It is a version 1.0, and we plan to add more features, regional language support and interface changes," he added.


“It shall definitely have a resounding positive impact on public health. When facts are incorrect, it leads to panic and takes the form of a vicious cycle. I appeal to people, transcending all borders, to use precautions that are being given out through official sources and to NOT get misled by myths that are circulated by mischievous elements,” said Dr Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister for Health & Family Welfare.

WhatsApp India ahead Abhijit Bose said credible sources of information are critical to battling the coronavirus.

The Helpdesk bot can at present handle 30 million messages, which can be scaled up in the future. It saw traffic of up to 10-12 million on the first day. This number is expected to go up significantly after the PM tweeted.

WhatsApp also launched a similar service for the World Health Organisation, which is free to use, has been designed to answer questions from the public about Coronavirus. The WHO Health Alert can be accessed by saving the number +41 79 893 1892 in your phone contacts and then texting the word ‘Hi’ in a WhatsApp message to get started.

The service responds to a series of prompts and will be updated daily with the latest information. The WhatsApp Coronavirus Information Hub is also available at whatsapp.com/coronavirus.

The WHO Health Alert will provide official information on topics such as how to protect yourself from infection, travel advice, and debunking Coronavirus myths. The service is initially launching in English but will be available in all six United Nations languages within the coming weeks (English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish.)

WhatsApp is used by 2 billion people globally, and is an effective way to reach out to citizens through official channels at a time when misinformation through the medium has become a cause of concern in the time of this pandemic.

First Published: Sat, March 21 2020. 20:18 IST
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