As part of efforts to stop the spread of false information about the coronavirus pandemic, Wikipedia and the World Health Organization announced a collaboration Thursday: The health agency will grant the online encyclopedia free use of its published information, graphics and videos.
The collaboration is the first between Wikipedia and a health agency.
“We all consult just a few apps in our daily life, and this puts WHO content right there in your language, in your town, in a way that relates to your geography,” said Andrew Pattison, a digital content manager for the health agency who helped negotiate the contract. “Getting good content out quickly disarms the misinformation.”
Since its start in 2001, Wikipedia has become one of the world’s 10 most consulted sites; it is frequently viewed for health information.
The agreement puts much of the WHO’s material into the Wikimedia “commons,” meaning it can be reproduced or retranslated anywhere, without the need to seek permission — as long as the material is identified as coming from the WHO and a link to the original is included.
“Equitable access to trusted health information is critical to keeping people safe and informed,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general.
His agency translates its work into six official languages, which do not include, for example, Hindi, Bengali, German or Portuguese, so billions of people cannot read its documents in their native or even second language.
Wikipedia articles, by contrast, are translated into about 175 languages.
The first WHO items used under the agreement are its “Mythbusters” infographics, which debunk more than two dozen false notions about COVID-19. Future additions could include, for example, treatment guidelines for doctors, said Ryan Merkley, chief of staff at the Wikimedia Foundation, which produces Wikipedia.
If the arrangement works out, it could be extended to counter misinformation regarding AIDS, Ebola, influenza, polio and dozens of other diseases, Merkley said, “But this was something that just had to happen now.”
Eventually, live links will be established that would, for example, update global case and death numbers on Wikipedia as soon as the WHO posts them, Pattison said.
The agency maintains its own website at www.who.int and has accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Pinterest, Snapchat, YouTube and Twitch.
Both men said their organizations want the world to have accurate information about the disease.
Since the virus was discovered in January, Pattison has been leading the WHO’s efforts to work with online platforms to fight what it called an “infodemic” of rumors.
The health agency collaborates with panels of moderators from each website and also teaches short courses in covering medical information to journalists from various countries, including the United States.
Some rumors, like the belief that COVID-19 is caused by eating bat soup or that it can be cured by eating garlic or hot peppers, are fairly harmless or “just silly,” Pattison said.
But others, such as claims that the illness can be fought by drinking bleach or high-proof alcohol, can be lethal.
“More than 700 people in Iran were killed by that rumor that you should drink high-grade alcohol,” Pattison said.
The debunking effort has become more difficult as unfounded rumors have been repeated by influential people. Guests on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News have touted at least seven unproven COVID treatments, including hydroxychloroquine, antibiotics, vitamins, zinc and monoclonal antibodies targeted against other diseases.
President Donald Trump backed hydroxychloroquine for weeks and publicly asked whether Americans should inject themselves with disinfectants or put ultraviolet lights — which can cause burns and break human DNA, which leads to cancer — inside their bodies.
Pattison said he had a staff of only five, although the agency subscribes to Newsguard, a service that hunts for new rumors springing up on the internet. His staff examines Newsguard alerts, consults medical experts, posts accurate information on the WHO website and then calls its contacts at social media agencies and asks them to link to it.
In contrast, collaborating with Wikipedia “is like having an army to work with,” he said.
Wikipedia has about 5,200 COVID-related articles in 174 languages, Merkley said. More than 82,000 contributors have written or edited them, including 3,000 who worked on the main article in English Wikipedia.
Because some contributors insert errors or “make malicious changes,” he said, there are several levels of safeguards. Some pages can be “locked” and cannot be changed until one of more than 200 volunteer editors on WikiProject COVID-19, many of whom are doctors or academics, review it.
More than 1,100 volunteers have set alerts to notify them when any page they are interested in is changed. And, if necessary, changes by any account that has existed for less than 30 days can be blocked.
The WHO also works with Google, but in a different way, Pattison said. For instance, Google analysts alerted his team that searches for an unfamiliar product as a COVID cure were peaking in Peru. The WHO looked at the product, realized it was a type of bleach and alerted Google.
“They gave us $50 million worth of free ads on Google Peru,” he said.
The agency posted public service announcements that read, “Learn the truth about COVID and chlorine.”
“Users got them at the top of their lists of search results, and we could see the searches go way down,” Pattison said.
The WHO has been consulted on rumors falsely claiming that masks cause people to black out and on whether a “rainforest product” sold by the government of Madagascar really worked.
Because the WHO must be careful never to insult a member government, Pattison released a carefully worded response saying there was no evidence for the product’s efficacy.
The WHO’s in-house epidemiologists “are getting a bit annoyed at me,” Pattison said, because of his constant requests for detailed written explanations of, for instance, why thermometers do not cause brain damage or why a 5G wireless network cannot transmit a bat virus.
“I’m afraid my Christmas card list is getting shorter,” he said.