Fact Checking Health Misinformation In India Requires Different Skillset: Neelam Singh

In an exclusive conversation with BW Healthcare World, Neelam Singh, Editor, THIP Media, shines light on the journey of creating a robust fact checking platform for healthcare related misinformation and more

Health misinformation has proved to spread faster than accurate information. Even during the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) commented that there is a parallel infodemic is spreading, raising concerns for the information quality in the online environment. 

THIP Media, the information media division of The Healthy Indian Project, had been fighting against health misinformation. A signatory of the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN), THIP works as a third party fact checker for Facebook and also runs a WhatsApp tipline where users can forward any health message that they receive and want to verify. BW Healthcare World talks to Neelam Singh, Editor, THIP Media about the experience of navigating through the world of fake news. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about The Healthy Indian Project and your fact checking efforts in THIP Media.

The Healthy Indian Project (THIP) came into being to make preventive healthcare convenient for all Indians. To fulfil our mission, we intend to launch a series of products and services in the healthcare space in coming months.

THIP Media, the information media division, builds verified health information in seven Indian languages. Fact checking health misinformation is a natural extension to that process.

We look at any health message on social media posts, advertisements, print and digital publications and vet them against scientific evidence. There is a team of medical professionals who work with us, guide us and share their valuable inputs in the process of fact checking a particular health information.

There are numerous fact-checking apps and websites in the market. How does THIP Media stand out in this crowd?

I sincerely wish there were numerous fact-checking apps and websites in the market. Honestly, there aren't many or I would say sufficient. At the moment there are 16 fact checking platforms in India who are signatories of International Fact Checking Network (IFCN). Consider this against more than 100,000 publications registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India, 239.65 million Facebook users in India and 487 million WhatsApp users in India. And, I am only quoting the number of users, not the number of pieces of content that gets created on a regular basis.

For every information we fact check and label as false, we scan probably 10 more which comes out as false. And this is only India. Extrapolate this at a global level and you will realise that the fact checkers are actually a very small community fighting a massive war against misinformation and disinformation. A 2019 study reveals, fake news has contributed a loss in stock market value, amounting to $39 billion a year. So, there is still a lot to be done in terms of fact checking.

At THIP Media, we stay focussed only on health content. In a recent research India was found to be the largest source Covid-19 related misinformation. There are only a couple of platforms who fact check misleading news and claims about health, medicine, diet and treatment. We believe, fact-checking health information requires a separate skill set and approach than fact-checking social or political information. Hence, our team comprises more science writers, doctors, medical researchers than journalists. We work with medical institutes and professionals to create content and fact check misinformation.

How was your experience in the times of Covid, fact-checking misinformation related to Coronavirus and vaccines in particular?

It's been overwhelming to say the least.

During the initial days, the situation was very chaotic with every post being about a miraculous cure or prevention from Coronavirus. From sunlight to soundwaves to diet - everything was being peddled as immunity builders. At this phase, we also had a number of irresponsible advertisement claims from businesses selling anti-Covid mattresses, eggs, fans, inhalers et al.

Then came a wave of personal experiences where people started sharing how they recovered. A certain diet or lifestyle they followed was out on social media as a possible cure. Though, a lot of these originated from genuine willingness to help. What people fail to understand is personal experiences are not medically validated cures. When you put out advice on social media just based on your personal experience, you are actually risking harm to many who may follow you and get hurt because the process was not compatible with certain pre-existing medical conditions they had.

As fact checkers, we could only point out to people that there is no scientific evidence to the claims they are making and they should stick to the guidelines given by WHO and the Indian Govt.

Then finally came the vaccines which started a barrage of organised disinformation. Thankfully, the anti-vaxxers lobby in India was not that active. Still, there had been enough overflowing information from the West to keep our team busy.

How are you funded?

So far we are a bootstrapped start-up. We received a grant from Google two years back and had been working with Meta (Facebook and WhatsApp) as a third party fact checker.

There are few other content servicing projects that we do for other clients too.

In this financial year, we are hoping to launch various other business verticals and add on to our revenue streams.

How has the journey been and what heights do you see achieving in the next couple of years?

The journey has been exhilarating so far. And, we have just started. There are few exciting product launches coming up very soon. We will be expanding to more Indian languages. 

We wish to be the largest source of evidence-based health information for all Indians in the coming few years.


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