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Infodemic and Pandemic join hands to take on COVID-19 fake news in Assam

Part of ‘Check the Fake’ initiative, a comic strip from Assam spells out the dangers of fake news spreading during the pandemic

April 28, 2020 8:49:52 pm

GUWAHATI: They are what one might call anti-social elements — up to no good apart, but together they are a lethal combination. Meet Infodemic and Pandemic, the protagonists of a new comic strip in Assam, which aims to curb the “sea of misinformation” that is spreading in tandem with the novel coronavirus.

“We need to sanitise not just our hands, but our minds, too,” said Ankuran Dutta, founder of Anamika Ray Memorial Trust (ARMT), the non-profit educational and research organisation, behind the cartoons. At the end of March, Dutta and a few others initiated the ‘Check The Fake’ movement to fight the infodemic, or the pandemic of incorrect information during COVID-19.

“We are not fact-checkers,” explains Dutta, currently the head of the Mass Communication Department at Gauhati University, “But through these cartoons, we are trying to raise awareness about fake news.”

The ARMT team has tied up with local newspapers and news portals to publish several strips to keep in check the spread of fake news. In one, Pandemic asks Infodemic: ‘Who travels faster — you or me?’ The latter replies ‘Of course me. You reached 15 lakh in 4 months, but it takes me no time to reach millions.’

The infographics created by the team to counter the spread of fake news

Dutta, a recipient of the National Award for Science Communication, 2018 from the Government of India, says he imagines Pandemic as a patient guy, confident that he can take over the world, slowly and steadily. “Infodemic, on the other hand, is over-confident, mischievous and knows all the tactics to bind people into its clutch.”

The characters have been illustrated by cartoonist Nituparna Rajbongshi from Barpeta district, while Guwahati-based Dr Sanjib Bora works as the graphic designer. “It is a collaborative process,” explains Rajbongshi, “The virus is a scientific thing, and hard for people to imagine. So what we have done is give it a form. For example, the character of infodemic is yellow, inspired by ‘yellow’ journalism. In many strips, he is seen glued to the smartphone.” Pandemic, on the other hand, is usually green, denoting the colour of illness.

The cartoons are backed by facts and figures researched by the ARMT team, comprising Dutta, professor Anupa Lahkar Goswami from Gauhati University and research scholar Raja Das. At the end of March, Dutta had noticed that a letter on the four phases of a lockdown protocol, believed to have been from the World Health Organisation (WHO), was in circulation. “It was fake, but the sad part was that even highly educated people I personally knew were forwarding it unknowingly. It is instinctive for people to forward stuff the moment they get it,” explains Dutta, whose organisation also advocates health rights.

The cartoons are backed by facts and figures researched by the ARMT team, comprising Dutta, professor Anupa Lahkar Goswami from Gauhati University and research scholar Raja Das.

They first began the initiative with posters — simple bullet points, with the heading ‘How to Sanitise Your Fake News’. The points included: discard unquoted stories, discourse forwards etc. “We even mentioned that a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research said fake news is six times faster than actual information,” says Dutta, “But since not many people were interested, we decided to branch out into cartoons.”

While most comic strips generally address the problem of fake news, others may sometimes incorporate fake news which is doing the rounds. “We try to find out what is trending in terms of news, we brainstorm and then figure out how to dispel it,” says Goswami, who also teaches at Gauhati University’s Mass Communication department.

While most comic strips generally address the problem of fake news, others may sometimes incorporate fake news which is doing the rounds.

“For example, on the day Prime Minister gave a call to light diyas, there were a lot of forwards about the virus getting killed from the light,” says Dutta, “So our cartoon addressed that — with a simple message to encourage frontline warriors, but discourage fakes news like that.”

While the team is now tying up with Assamese dailies to get these cartoons in Assamese too, Dutta says they have been trying to push these as much as they can from their social media handles. “We do not have money to tie up with big companies like Facebook – so we are trying to do it in our own small way,” he says.

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