How WhatsApp is creating awareness and leading the charge against misinformation about COVID-19
Each morning, the children of a small settlement along the Central Railway line in Mumbai open a WhatsApp group on their parents’ phones to get their lessons for the day. All over the country, exams have been cancelled and schools have closed indefinitely with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic COVID-19. However, their studies are uninterrupted as teachers are sharing lesson plans, exercises, and video sessions via WhatsApp.
Across the country, in Chennai, citizens are leveraging WhatsApp to network among private citizens, voluntary organisations, and the police to distribute food to the homeless.
With over 400 million users, WhatsApp has proved to be a significant enabler with both Central and State governments leveraging its popularity to reach ordinary citizens and offer accurate and timely updates on the pandemic. According to a PTI, the MyGov CoronaHelpdesk, which was developed by Artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot company Haptik Infotech Pvt Ltd. along with WhatsApp and the Ministry of Health, aims to provide timely updates and help citizens clear their queries on COVID-19. It has been used by over 2 crore users and more than 55 million messages have been sent by over 20 million users since the chatbot was launched by the government on March 20.
The service was initially launched in English, with Hindi language capabilities added later. The bot caters to a set of predefined questions, the answers to which are sourced from the official World Health Organization (WHO) data. If the chatbot receives a query that is not within the scope of the mentioned questions, it sends an automated response stating that it does not have that information. Questions are added periodically based on user queries.
Building awareness for all
With more and more cases being reported across the country, dispelling the misinformation being circulated on messaging apps was paramount. Considering this criticality, the chatbot was built in just four days. Following the launch, the database has grown and is updated periodically. Currently, people can access the latest updates on coronavirus, and useful information regarding the virus, its symptoms, how it spreads and how to contain its spread. The traction was almost immediate and the chatbot had processed over 5 million conversations in the first 48 hours. According to Haptik, the chatbot reportedly had over 17 lakh daily active users on March 25 (the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the availability of the helpdesk). The following day, the number of active users grew exponentially to 35 lakh, and the number has been growing since then.
The ‘MyGov Corona helpdesk’ has already processed over 32 million conversations on WhatsApp from users across the country while more than 22 million users have taken their queries to the chatbot in the three weeks since its launch. At the time of writing this story, the chatbot, on average, was handling over 1 million users each day. The ‘MyGov Corona Helpdesk’ has handled over 3.5 million users in a single day and has the scale to cater to many more users.
The chatbot was launched in English, but the Haptik team started building a Hindi version a few days after the launch. “The Hindi language was added to assist the millions of Hindi speaking users in the country. A user only has to type Hindi or हिन्दी and the language of the chatbot changes to the Hindi language,” says Akhilesh Mishra is Director (Content) at MyGov.
In addition to the MyGov Corona Helpdesk, several state governments have also launched chatbots to help residents in their native language. The Delhi government, for example, has built a bot on the WhatsApp API with Infobip India. Users can also get professional advice from doctors, State and language-specific chatbots and the various ways in which one can get help. Infobip has also launched state-specific bots in Kerala, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Information includes helpline numbers, symptom reporting, and assistance for pregnant ladies, among others. To make it convenient for citizens, many of these helpline numbers have been converted into WhatsApp helpline numbers. According to Infobip, engagement peaked around the launch with 3-4 lakh messages per day and today averages around 10k-20k messages.
Information is power
WhatsApp is actively trying to curb the spread of misinformation around the pandemic while ensuring that people have access to reliable and verified health information from official sources. They recently announced a feature change to slow the spread of misinformation. This ensures that "frequently forwarded" messages can only be forwarded to one chat at a time.
The company also recently gave $1million to the International Fact-Checking Network to step up fact-checking services on WhatsApp. They are also bringing additional local fact-checkers to verify rumours that are shared on WhatsApp. The faster these rumours are identified and reported, the more resilient communities are to the rumours.
Another initiative is the WHO Coronavirus Health Alert service on WhatsApp to give prompt, reliable and official information to people within 24 hours a day, worldwide.