India launches WhatsApp chatbot to create awareness about coronavirus, asks social media services to curb spread of misinformation

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India is turning to WhatsApp, the most popular app in the country, to create awareness about the coronavirus pandemic and has urged social media services to tackle spread of misinformation on their platforms.

Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, said on Saturday that citizens in the country can text a WhatsApp bot — called MyGov Corona Helpdesk — to get instant authoritative answers to their coronavirus queries such as the symptoms of the viral disease and how they could seek help.

An individual is required to text +919013151515 (or click on this shortcut link) to connect to the bot.

The bot was built by Mumbai-based firm Haptik Technologies, which local telecom giant Reliance Jio acquired last year, and the information is being provided by the nation’s Ministry of Health.

“The ‘MyGov Corona Helpdesk’ has been engineered to fight rumors, educate the masses and bring a sense of calm to the current chaos-like situation. We are committed to assisting the government with all our possible strengths and resources and hope that this chatbot can help the GoI spread the right information across the nation,” Aakrit Vaish, co-founder and chief executive of Haptik, told TechCrunch.

A screenshot of New Delhi’s WhatsApp bot

On Thursday, Modi urged the nation’s 1.3 billion citizens to stay at home as much as possible for the next few days to prevent any “explosion” of coronavirus cases.

“For the last few days we have seen that people think we are safe from coronavirus. This is not right. It’s not okay to get complacent,” he said in a nationwide televised appearance.

More than 250 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 in India so far.

On Friday, India’s IT ministry issued an advisory to social media giants including Facebook, ByteDance, Twitter, and Sharechat, to take immediate actions to remove or disable fake content around coronavirus.

“Intermediaries are urged to initiate awareness campaign on their platforms for the users not to upload/ circulate any false news/misinformation concerning coronavirus which are likely to create panic among public and disturb the public order and social tranquility,” it said.

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization partnered with WhatsApp to create a helpline to provide people with accurate health information related to the coronavirus.

The WHO Health Alert provides tips on how people could protect themselves, the latest news updates and findings on the pandemic, and answers to some of the frequently asked questions. People can sign up to this bot by clicking here.

In a statement, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, said, “digital technology gives us an unprecedented opportunity for vital health information to go viral and spread faster than the pandemic, helping us save lives and protect the vulnerable. We are proud to have partners like Facebook and Whatsapp, that are supporting us in reaching billions of people with important health information.”

WhatsApp, which has been grappling with spread of rumors about the pandemic, began reaching out to dozens of governments last month to assist in their efforts to provide accurate information to the general public, it said.

“The WHO Health Alert is the latest official NGO or government helpline to become available on WhatsApp, joining the Singapore Government, The Israel Ministry of Health, the South Africa Department of Health, and KOMINFO Indonesia. We are actively working to launch local services with other countries as well,” the firm said.