#infohygiene in times of pandemics

The world is dealing with a new and challenging crisis with fast-evolving science, combined with a staggering flow of information, the first global “infodemic”.

And while we are forced to keep a distance from our fellow human beings, the virus has also shown us just how connected we all are. Information is forwarded and then forwarded again, breaking news with new cases, mitigation measurements, unforeseen effects and encouraging breakthroughs, have us jumping between devices and screens. Some suffer from information fatigue, others risk being left out of the loop, but everyone is equally struggling to navigate and find the right information that is relevant to their context.    

Internews has been working on rumours, misinformation and disinformation for many years, including in the Ebola-response in 2014 where we launched our first rumour-tracking project, a methodology we continue to use, adapt and improve in humanitarian responses around the world. It also helps us grapple with fake news and disinformation when it infiltrates the mainstream media.

The information ecosystem is now truly global, which can be overwhelming. Local media are uniquely positioned to be a bridge between science and daily life. The media can make sense of the science for their audiences, translating facts into truly useful information. The media can also connect the questions from those living within their community, with the services and advice from those who are trying to improve their lives.

Misinformation and rumours thrive when people feel ignored, when the information they get does not take into account the reality they live in. Disinformation gets traction, when it manages to speak a language people prefer, rather than a language they understand, when it speaks to their concerns, their fears and their hopes.

We need to get our facts straight, that’s a basic rule of journalism. But more than just providing facts, we need to be sure we understand why a half-truth was believed in the first place.

There’s no magic formula, no cure, no vaccine against misinformation. But, with the following tips and tricks, journalists can play their part in slowing the spread of misinformation. 

1.  Listen first

a) A good doctor starts with listening to their patient – and so should you! If you create content that is in tune with what people want and need to know, information will be relevant, contextual and easier to understand. If you listen before you speak, people will also feel acknowledged which is the first step of building trust. When the scale of a crisis seems so big and the news feels overwhelming, make sure to not just pass on information from outside or from above, but start by understanding what people are talking about. Try to understand the concerns in your community, look at what people are posting online, what people are asking you, as a journalist, what you see in your community. In times of social distancing, find other ways of tapping into the conversation. Try to get as many different perspectives as you can. Call local organisations, small businesses, schools, hospitals, shelters. Start with their questions, and then look for answers.

b) Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, ..  these are common tools for communication – not just one-to-one or one-to-a-few, but they also allow people to create larger communities. Search for the most common hashtags (#covid19 #covid-19 & #coronavirus) but don’t just limit yourself to those: look for more specific hashtags or terminology used in your country or in your region. Be aware that each platform may have a different audience and that people may use and share information differently on different platforms. Try using Crowdtangle’s COVID-19 dashboard to see what posts are getting the most engagement where you are.

c) Messaging apps: whatsapp, Viber, Wechat: you might already be part of some groups bringing people together from your neighbourhood, your sport team, or former high school friends. It all contributes to understanding what’s going on in the community, but as always: be aware of your own bubble. And do not use information directly coming from those groups, without asking for consent!

More on messaging apps from a humanitarian perspective: https://www.icrc.org/en/document/messaging-apps-untapped-humanitarian-resource

And from a journalistic perspective: https://www.journalism.co.uk/news-commentary/how-to-engage-with-news-consumers-through-private-messaging-apps/s6/a746117/

d) Remember – Not everyone is online! Go back to basics, pick up the phone, go outside, talk to representatives of minorities and marginalised communities – do they have unique information needs? And have you really talked with everyone? 

For more on inclusion: https://www.communityengagementhub.org/what-we-do/novel-coronavirus/

e) Don’t dismiss rumours, but don’t spread them further. Try to understand what the concerns, fears and hopes behind the rumours are. And always consider whether repeating the rumour (even when refuting it) might contribute to it’s spread.

For more: https://internews.org/sites/default/files/2019-07/Rumor_Tracking_Mods_3_How-to-Guide.pdf

2.  Check your facts

Get it right, or get it first? In a time of crisis, sharing confusing or misleading information harms people. So more than ever, you want to make sure you check your information with reliable experts, and science-based sources.

a) Check your sources and your sources’ sources. Some websites generate beautiful graphs – but what sources do they use? Go to the root-source – don’t rely on secondary data:

b) Check the date, location, audience: what is true today, might be outdated tomorrow! What is true in one place, might not be valid elsewhere. And some information or advice is only valid for some people. A lot of rumours emerge from these basic misunderstandings, so it’s very important to be clear on who your audience is and what information is specific to them..

c) Check & Double check: Even seasoned journalists can make mistakes, don’t share unless YOU know it is accurate

d) Check your numbers – percentages are tricky!

Resource – Basic Maths for journalists

e) Data visualisation is a great way to translate complex data into images your audience can easily understand. If you’re not doing it yet, look here:

f)  Do your homework! Check reliable sources and get familiar with some of the most used scientific language. Avoid using complex language in your stories, but if the term is necessary, always provide a plain language definition immediately following the term:

3.  You can’t always believe your eyes

Images are powerful. But images that have been manipulated or used out of context, can be powerfully misleading. People fall for fake images – perhaps even more so that for fake words, because it seems like “visual evidence”.

a) Do not share images before verifying them. If you don’t know who created the image, or when it was created – don’t share it. 

b) Be careful not to stigmatise! Pictures, memes or other images may get a quick laugh, but can cause long term pain to vulnerable communities. 

c) Images are not always what they seem – learn how to spot a fake! https://firstdraftnews.org/latest/understanding-visual-misinfo/

4.  Don’t Create Panic

Reporting on a pandemic, might create anxiety or even panic, resulting in people feeling overwhelmed and powerless. Journalists have a responsibility to reflect the current situation in their work but should not contribute to the chaos.  

a) Focus on the way forward – mobilise the community to actively participate in their response and point them towards what they can practically do for themselves

b) Don’t inflate headlines for quick clicks – encourage practical, not panic

c) Be creative and think sideways: how does this crisis affect other aspects in people’s lives?

More on how to report in a crisis without creating panic:

5.  Trust your gut

A good journalist must have a good gut feeling, follow a hunch, be suspicious, smell a lie. But be humble and allow yourself to be proven wrong. Check your own privileges and bias. Journalistic instincts are good, but they should be the start of a process of fact-checking and gathering more information, not a reason to skip it. 

a) Never ever share or publish anything without attributing to a source, especially not on social media. Distinguish your information from   the misinformation and disinformation online. Make sure your content is not put in the same bag!

b) Call out items that are circulating without attributed sources. In that way you don’t even have to engage with whether the content may or may not be true – it should not be out in public if it doesn’t have accurate and detailed source information.

6.  Watch your language

In times of stress, it is reassuring for people to get information in the language they know best. It reduces the chance of misunderstandings (and rumours!) and shows your audience this information is created for them. And even more importantly: it encourages people to get in touch and ask more questions.

  • Use the preferred language of your audiences. Consider producing key content in minority languages – those who don’t speak the majority language, are often also the ones who need information most.
  • Make sure to use plain, clear language. If you don’t understand it yourself, or you are not able to explain it to your parents then rewrite! Complicated information just causes more stress, confusion and misunderstandings.
  • Metaphors and similes can be a great way to help your audience relate to complex information, but always verify with an expert to ensure information is still accurate.

For more on language: https://translatorswithoutborders.org

7. Public versus private

Now that everybody is concerned about the impact of the virus, there’s a drive to do “whatever it takes” to stop it. But some good intentions can cause unintended harm.  Avoid stigma. The virus doesn’t care about colour, ethnicity, gender and neither should we.

  • Don’t expose people’s identities, without their consent even if they test positive.  This could result in less people seeking testing or treatment  out of fear for the consequences for themselves or their family. If people fear being identified,  it will  significantly hamper the work of health professionals.
  • Only mention specific countries, ethnic or minority groups in your stories where necessary
  • Avoid engaging cultural anthropology – connect with your communities, don’t analyze them from afar

On public interest versus privacy: https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/the-public-interest

More Internews resources 

·   Internews Health website 

·   Internews Humanitarian website 

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