As the bubonic plague spread in 14th century Europe, rumors that Jewish communities were intentionally spreading the disease by poisoning waterways resulted in the mass murder of Jewish people. It was one of many false ideas spread about the disease at a time when people had little or no understanding of how it emerged and spread.
As times have changed, the need for people to blame a group or communicate controversial theories have not. But what has changed, is the technology that can enhance the spread of false information on a global scale.
Experts monitoring the COVID-19 “infodemic,” and its impact on the pandemic response, have suggested a range of strategies. The World Health Organization is among those to urge tech companies to do more in the fight, while the United Nations is urging social media users to be better informed about misinformation and how it spreads. The role of media in spreading both misinformation and disinformation is a focus of ongoing research to understand how it can impact the COVID-19 response.
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In communities where access to technology is limited, misinformation and disinformation on COVID-19 can still spread. Here, different strategies are needed to provide accurate information on how the disease can be prevented and treated.
To combat misinformation and disinformation, a range of initiatives have emerged in COVID-19 funding data. As of June 30, an analysis of Devex funding data reveals a range of projects and initiatives aiming to combat this challenge. A total of 19 funding announcements worth $471 million have been announced, along with 30 grants worth $50 million, two programs worth $40 million, and five open opportunities worth $26 million. Six tenders have also been announced, providing opportunities for the private sector to support action against misinformation and disinformation.
Among programs targeting disinformation, which is the intentional manipulation of information, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State are leading donors. The U.N. is the leading donor targeting misinformation.
Aside from bilateral and multilateral donors, the task of correcting the record on COVID-19 is being tackled by NGOs and private sector partners. Social media and traditional media are common themes among the approaches, while music and talking books are among some of the innovative approaches being used to deliver truthful information to remote communities.
Social media and technology strategies
While social media is a means of spreading information and disinformation, it is still being used in the approach to combat false information. In Mexico, the International Organization for Migration identified rumors insinuating that migrants and refugees could be vectors of the disease, fueling xenophobia. Alberto Cabezas, national communication officer at IOM Mexico, told Devex that IOM chose to respond by launching a COVID-19 campaign targeting discrimination against migrants on Twitter and Facebook in April, to help users identify this misinformation and deliver truthful data.
Cabezas told Devex the campaign was initiated after recognizing a challenge in getting the general population of Mexico to understand the severity of the coronavirus because of mixed messages.
The target audience for the campaign was primarily Mexicans living in cities where there are shelters for migrants and refugees supported by IOM, as well as public officials dealing with people on the move as part of the COVID-19 response or potentially in charge of public policies.
Over the three week period the campaign ran, Cabezas said it reached 334,000 users on Facebook and almost 140,000 users on Twitter. IOM is now working to understand how the campaign generated empathy, understanding, and a positive attitude toward migrants and refugees in Mexico over the mid to long-term. The campaign has already been implemented elsewhere.
“The campaign was intended to be aired just in Mexico at first,” Cabezas said. “However, with the support of IOM headquarters, contents were translated into English and French.” The campaign has now run in 11 countries between April and May, where similar misinformation challenges were identified — Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Francia, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Spain, and the United States.
At the tech company end, Google has been among the organizations responding to WHO’s request for support with a range of action. In April, it announced a $6.5 million initiative to support efforts in fighting misinformation surrounding COVID-19. The funding supports efforts by fact-checkers and non-profits organizations working to combat fake news on the coronavirus. Among the issues Google highlighted were reports of people testing dangerous “cures” based on videos, stories, and messages they had seen online.
Virginie Serre, corporate communications manager for Google Asia-Pacific, told Devex this is part of a wider approach the company is implementing to ensure that users of its products are directed to authoritative information sources for COVID-19 first — supporting fact-checking is an important part of identifying misinformation and correcting it.
“As part of this effort, the Google News Initiative is providing new support for journalists, fact-checkers, and nonprofits focusing on COVID-19 information quality and planning to surface their work to users in our products,” Serre said.
Targeting the media
Multiple forms of misinformation are causing women to avoid breastfeeding during the pandemic — an outcome that United Nations agencies and NGOs are working to reverse.
A range of grants and programs are targeting media too, providing industry with better tools and resources to provide correct information.
In South Asia, Minority Rights Group International was concerned about discrimination and the spread of hate through fear of COVID-19.
“In India, a Muslim gathering in March, which led to a number of COVID cases, has been deployed to spread the narrative that Muslims are responsible for the spread of the disease in India,” Shikha Dilawri, the South Asia programme coordinator at MRG, told Devex. “Critically, in some contexts it is influential media as well as government officials who are involved in spreading this information.”
In April, it launched a grant program to support short-term projects that address both misinformation and disinformation, targeting minorities in the region with projects currently active until the end of October. Traditional media is being targeted, and 19 projects have been funded in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka as a way to shut down hate speech.
“One project in Sri Lanka seeks to engage directly with media — traditional and social — to address or combat disinformation and misinformation, as well as to highlight the minority dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dilawri said.
Innovative approaches supporting remote communities
In places with limited access to the internet and media, unique approaches need to be taken to target groups and avenues of communication that will re-frame the discussion on COVID-19.
In Ethiopia, a mobile-based survey conducted in March found that 57% of respondents believed COVID-19 could be cured with garlic, 23% believed they could get COVID-19 from Chinese-made products, and 30% also thought it was a bio-weapon produced by a government.
“In some areas, the misconceptions have their roots in religious beliefs and practices, such as the belief that COVID cannot affect those who are very religious, and that it makes no difference if they take protective or preventive measures since God or Allah will determine who will be saved or not,” Victor Chinyama, chief of communication, advocacy and partnerships at UNICEF Ethiopia, told Devex.
For the majority of the rural population — women in particular — information is commonly sourced through community events or conversations. To target this group, UNICEF issued a tender for talking books in June.
Talking books are an easy-to-use audio device designed specifically for sharing knowledge with low-literate, rural, off-grid communities to expand their access to accurate information. They provide the opportunity for remote monitoring and user feedback, which will give professionals insights into the communities, and to hear directly from participants to allow the correction of misinformation in a timely manner.
“Women mentors will be trained on how to use the device with content on COVID preventive messages, and other maternal and child health messages, to educate themselves during women-to-women group meetings. Likewise, community health workers will also use the device when conducting community mobilization activities,” Chinyama said.
Targeting misinformation and disinformation broadly
While there are approaches directly targeting misinformation and disinformation, the funding data shows that donors are increasingly building initiatives to combat false information into broader sector or country programs.
In Australia, Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced in an online discussion that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is set to take this a step further — combating disinformation is to be a key focus of the Australian aid program.
“DFAT will be very focused on ensuring that we are working with partners … to make sure that where we see disinformation — whether it's here, whether it's in the Pacific, whether it's in Southeast Asia — where it affects our region's interests and our values, then we will be shining a light on it,” she said. “And I expect the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to use all of its efforts to participate in that process.”
For DFAT, this is set to become a critical component of the new aid program, which is focused on helping partner countries respond to and recover from COVID-19.
As part of a program supporting the COVID-19 response in Latin America and the Caribbean, Global Affairs Canada listed expected outcomes as “improved communication of critical risk and event information to all communities, and counter misinformation.” In Haiti, a $20 million World Bank project to provide testing and improved treatment for COVID-19 in Haiti will also “support communications activities to help community members understand what they can do to prevent spread and counter misinformation.”
Both donor organizations told Devex that this is part of wider communication strategies that incorporate digital and published media in providing correct information to communities that will help stop the spread of the virus.
The examples of the approaches being taken to combat misinformation and disinformation show that there is not a one-size fits all approach. Understanding the communities, understanding how they get information and share information, are critical in designing programs. With the stakes high, delivering correct information, fast, is an important challenge the sector is supporting through their COVID-19 funding.
“Misinformation operates as [a] manifestation of existing structural issues, but has the ability to exacerbate these in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dilawri said.
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