he thornapple, a sweetly perfumed plant with trumpet-shaped flowers, is named for its spiky, spherical fruit. Last year, the curiously shaped fruit took on new meaning because of its uncanny resemblance to a coronavirus particle. As COVID-19 began infecting thousands of people in early 2020, a viral TikTok video claimed the thornapple’s seeds could protect against the virus.
It was untrue. Thornapples are highly poisonous, and eating their seeds can result in hallucinations, muscle fatigue, paralysis and even death. But the TikTok video convinced families in the large Indian village of Baireddipalle to ingest a mixture of the plant’s seeds and oils, resulting in 12 people being rushed to hospital.
When Netha Hussain, a medical doctor from Kerala, India, first read about the poisonings, she decided to compile a list of unproven methods against COVID-19 on the world’s largest online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Hussain, who has been editing Wikipedia articles for a decade, dutifully edited pages relating to the coronavirus’ spread in India during the early days of the pandemic, but the thornapple story forced a rethink.
“That was when I decided to change route and write a little bit about misinformation,” she says.
Hussain, and an army of over 97,000 volunteers from around the world, have been monitoring and editing the thousands of COVID-19 pages created on Wikipedia since the virus first emerged. Pages cover everything from coronavirus variants to vaccination and monthly timelines.
Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines, strengthened by its two decades online, ensure misinformation and vandalism are snuffed out with great speed. Those who try to post conspiracy theories or pseudoscience are struck down by eagle-eyed editors surveying incremental, unsourced changes. With almost two edits made to COVID-19 pages every minute throughout 2020, the efforts of Hussain and Wikipedia’s volunteer army have proven invaluable, helping the encyclopedia become a bastion for truth in an era where lies run rampant online.
But behind the scenes, contributors have been locked in a year-long battle over one contentious aspect of the pandemic: Where did the new coronavirus come from? The prevailing hypothesis is that the virus arose naturally in bats. Another suggests it may have leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, which has long studied bat-borne coronaviruses and lies in close proximity to the location of the first cases.
Just as scientists and the popular press have wrestled with data, conspiracy theories and speculation around the theory, so have those dedicating hours to maintaining one of the world’s most popular repositories of human knowledge. ReadMore
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