Talk about timing. Before the first cases of coronavirus was reported in India at the end of January, a group of active Wikipedia editors — or Wikipedia volunteers, as they call themselves — in India decided to launch the Special Wikipedia Awareness Scheme for The Healthcare Affiliates or the SWASTHA campaign. (`The word ‘Swastha’ also means health in Sanskrit). The group set out with the ambition of translating English Wikipedia pages on health-related topics to regional languages. They met for the first time in Mumbai in December 2019. “We had no talk about coronavirus in the meeting at all,” says one of the members of the SWASTHA campaign and a long-time Kannada Wikipedian, Dr UB Pavanaja.
Medical information in the Indian language encyclopedias has been incomplete and there is a lot of demand for information in regional languages. An estimated 536 million Indians are expected to use regional languages on the web by 2021. The group was ready to translate 10 topics (there is a process established by WikiProject Med to decide the priority of topics) into ten languages. Then, came the coronavirus outbreak.
Amid all the confusion and the noise around coronavirus then, Wikipedia has made a comeback. (Representational image: Reuters)
On March 13, Wikipedia tweeted that nearly 1.9K editors had made nearly 12K edits to the main Wikipedia page on coronavirus, “2019–2020 coronavirus pandemic page”. In India, volunteers created the “2020 coronavirus pandemic in India”, which has been viewed over a million times. The page has been translated into languages like Hindi (which has been viewed more than 3,000 times), Bengali, Tamil, and Kannada. Other English-language coronavirus-related pages have either been translated or are in the works.
Amid all the confusion and the noise around coronavirus then, Wikipedia has made a comeback. It has long been considered a secondary source of information which means that a user can find the primary source of information on the article (through inline citations, for instance) if she/he is unsure. That makes it reliable, at least more reliable than information that has been sent through a WhatsApp forward.
In fact, Pavanaja and other editors work on the basis of the primary source of information, rather than relying blindly on the English Wikipedia pages. But there’s also another reason for relying on the primary source of information. Manavpreet Kaur, a volunteer with the Wiki Med Project, says that English language pages may be constantly edited. Regional languages are far less prone to malicious edits, by comparison. That is why, in one of the meetings about splitting translation work, Pavanaja asked others like him to consider the authentic sources of information rather than the English pages, especially in the case of coronavirus-related information.
In fact, perhaps for the first time, Wikipedia even dedicated a banner to the coronavirus epidemic under its “in the news” section.
Wikipedia even dedicated a banner to the coronavirus epidemic under its “in the news” section. (Screenshot of Wikipedia page: Twitter/ @Cyclonebiskit)
As several state governments shut down schools and universities, thousands of children are returning home. In a soft-quarantine situation like ours, it’s especially important to know where to turn for real information because we’re likely going to find ourselves online a whole lot more. Even though social media platforms have tried their best to reroute users to authentic information if users searched for coronavirus, they haven’t been fully successful. In India, for instance, a single wrong status update can create panic.
To put it in perspective, social media platforms like Facebook have constantly come under fire for collecting users’ data and for using that data to make a profit. On the other hand, in 2017, Facebook and YouTube announced they were going to rely on Wikipedia to make their news content a little reliable. Though Wikipedia has faced flak for letting anyone with access to a computer and the internet edit its pages, the site's tightly controlled quality check mechanisms have so far done well to serve mostly correct information. In response to the announcement, Washington Post called Wikipedia the “good cop of the internet,” and recently, Wired called it “The Last Best Place on the Internet”. So why not just turn to Wikipedia like the good ol' days?