Aid groups targeted by fake news, report says

International development organizations have been a target of fake news. Photo by: Negative Space

LONDON — Development organizations are “struggling to cope” with the impact of “fake news,” according to a new report.

The report, published Tuesday by the International Broadcasting Trust, a nonprofit working on media coverage of developing countries, highlights the experience of international NGOs including Save the Children and ActionAid, which have been targeted by false stories designed to disrupt their work and smear the reputations of senior staff.

IBT says that NGOs need to monitor fake news about them, and be better prepared to challenge misleading information. It also warns that development organizations face greater media scrutiny than ever before, and should take steps to avoid disseminating misleading stories and statistics themselves, even unintentionally.

“Conflicts and natural disasters are increasingly accompanied by rumours and misinformation on social media making humanitarian operations in these areas even more difficult. People need fact-based information about key global issues such as climate change and migration,” the report states.

“Only strong communication strategies, built around clear core values, will ensure that NGOs are heard above the increasing stridency of competing voices on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.”

The impact of fake news

NGOs have to navigate fake news on two fronts as they work in the field, according to Fergus Bell, a British media consultant and one of more than a dozen experts interviewed for the report.

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First, they “have to verify information on the ground that will help them determine where it’s safe or unsafe to operate,” Bell told IBT, and inaccurate reports will impair their ability to deliver services. “But they are also bearing the brunt of misinformation and fake news about their ground operations. They have to monitor the information shared about them and, where they are the subject of fake news, they need to recognise it and fix it.”

The authors highlight the experience of Save the Children, whose search and rescue work in the Mediterranean during the “migration crisis” was imperilled by false allegations that the NGO was colluding with people traffickers. A single fabricated report online led to repeated attempts to disrupt Save’s work, explained Sean Ryan, its director of media.

“We had to fight this propaganda without many resources. We just had to keep repeating that we only worked with the Italian coastguard,” Ryan said.

The report also recounts the experience of Girish Menon, chief executive of ActionAid, who was accused of being a member of the terror group ISIS by messages circulating online.

“We discovered that the message originated from a fake news site hosted in the U.S.,” Menon explained. “In the heat of the moment, there’s no analysis of what’s fake or not. If it had been picked up by other media circles, what would we do? There are only so many times you can issue a rebuttal.”

Menon is clear that a smear campaign of this kind could endanger aid work. “Reputations are so brittle, what would supporters think, and of course ActionAid works in many countries that have an ISIS footprint.”

Meeting the challenge

“Fake news presents huge challenges for charities and many are struggling to cope,” according to IBT Director Mark Galloway. However, the report recommends a number of practical steps NGOs can take to protect themselves from its impact.

The experts agreed that NGOs should be ready to tackle “substantial claims” against them, and use their networks of supporters and donors on social media to help rebut fake claims. Media consultant Phil Harding told IBT, “you have to use the same amplification resources as those spreading the misinformation.”

The report also suggests that development organizations could team up with established fact checkers like Full Fact and the BBC’s Reality Check, to expand fact-checking services which generally focus on domestic questions.

And it argues that charities could back calls to improve “media literacy,” to help the next generation of supporters distinguish between reliable and fake news, citing recent efforts by Oxfam and Christian Aid to introduce school-age children to key concepts in development and aid.

Best practice

However, development NGOs are not just the victims of fake news. “An even bigger reputational risk can be posed by misinformation spread by NGOs themselves,” IBT reports, “whether intentionally in a bid to increase support, or unintentionally through a failure to check sources and data.”

There are ways organizations can avoid this pitfall and retain public trust. Especially on social media, where fake news spreads so quickly, NGOs should be careful to verify any image it uses or retweets, using simple tools like reverse image searches to check when and where pictures were previously used.

The report authors also suggest that staff monitoring social media content should be rotated to avoid mistakes and safeguard their own well-being, especially in areas such as migration which attract controversy.

There is a dividend for charities who get this right, however. “If NGOs can address the issue of trust directly then there is almost certainly an opportunity for them to build their brands as trusted sources of information,” the report says.

About the author

  • Russell Hargrave

    Russell Hargrave is a freelance journalist and political consultant, with a special interest in development, migration, and finance. As well as Devex, he writes regularly for Public Finance, the Church Times, and He is the author of "Drawbridge Britain," a book about immigration since World War II, and advises the Liberal Democrats on refugee policy.

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