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IRC warns against worrying rise of misinformation in crisis-hit states, imperiling fight against COVID-19

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New York, NY, October 28, 2020 — The International Rescue Committee is extremely concerned about the spread of COVID-related misinformation across the crisis-affected countries where we work. The IRC has noted a rise not only in misinformation -- such as health advice that is inaccurate -- but also disinformation -- such as deliberately deceptive propaganda with malintent linked to the pandemic. The IRC is concerned that unless responders are able to engage with communities and gain the trust of populations, this infodemic will imperil an already tenuous pandemic response, impacting the world's most vulnerable.

When public health information is not contextualized and adapted to communities, misinformation spreads broadly. Like other epidemics such as Ebola, if the information is scientifically accurate but not adapted to local contexts, people will simply not trust it and look for answers elsewhere. The IRC is tracking misinformation in our country programs around the world that may have negative impacts on critical health seeking behavior-- such as seeking out COVID-19 testing or treatment, or receiving an eventual vaccine-- and other adverse effects related to social unrest, violence, and further erosion of government and humanitarian trust and pandemic response:

  • In El Salvador, many beneficiaries have sought information via the IRC's responsive information platform called CuentaNos which offers comprehensive information related to vital services and also helps debunk incorrect information related to so-called natural cures that "could help" COVID-19 patients, such as drinking specific tea leaves or herbs.
  • In Myanmar, reaching conflict-affected populations in Rakhine with information about the disease has been extremely difficult due to restrictions on humanitarian access and internet access. IRC community consultations early in the pandemic indicated people in conflict-affected areas were the least likely to be reached by and retain public health messages.
  • In Bangladesh, the community has questioned the relevance of the information disseminated with many asking for it to be updated to include real time status of the pandemic in the camps. Reports coming in also indicate that there is a misconception about the virus in the camps with many people thinking the virus is not in the camps.
  • Against the backdrop of extremely low testing - with northwest Syria performing only 5,386 tests per million - there remain extensive gaps in people's knowledge around how the virus is spread, especially among children. There is particular stigma around wearing masks. In a recent IRC protection monitoring report, one key informant said: "Children are making fun of the situation. We see them in the streets singing about the coronavirus and scaring each other with masks. Yesterday, I was sitting on the balcony and saw a child pick up a mask from the ground and put it on to scare the other children saying 'Corona! Corona!' And all the other children ran away from him. They think that those wearing the masks are the ones infected."
  • In Afghanistan, already one of the most beleaguered healthcare systems in the world, misinformation circulating amongst IRC beneficiaries includes that Muslims are immune to the virus, and that closure of madrassas and mosques would further the spread and that those even suspected of having the virus would be injected with poison in hospital facilities.

Andre Heller, Director of the IRC's Signpost project and former Emergency Field Director of the IRC's Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said: "IRC teams are all too familiar with the damage done when community engagement misses the mark. False or misleading stories spread six times faster than the truth on social media platforms like Twitter and health misinformation receives four times as many views on Facebook as reliable information shared by actors like the World Health Organization. This is by no means a victimless issue: during the Ebola outbreak in the DRC, unsuccessful community engagement led to the spread of misinformation, mistrust and even attacks on healthcare providers that seriously set back the epidemic response. We have also already seen COVID-19 misinformation take lives: in communities where control measures are not respected, the incidence of COVID-19 skyrockets, healthcare workers have become targets of violence and stigmatization, and trust has eroded between responders and communities. While the pandemic may be the subject of political theatre, the virus is a killer and has a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities.

"Information can be lifesaving, but people will only take on information that they trust, information that is actionable in their lived reality. What's more, health information must be linked with access to critical resources and services, because in a complex crisis people are not only overwhelmed with the amount of health information but they are also worried about other things like their physical safety, economic wellbeing, education, food security, etc. Information is aid in and of itself, and the international aid community needs ground-breaking, evidence-based community information just like its other groundbreaking aid programs. The aid system needs to learn to listen and meet people where they are - not where they want them to be. In the past, the slow adaptation of the aid sector to communities has resulted in missed opportunities to perilous ends. If we fail to provide localized information, misinformation and disinformation will result in massive loss of life and a hobbled public health response."

While general health advice related to prevention of the COVID-19 virus is readily available, a gap remains in access to contextualized public health information at the community level. Given restrictions in movement and social distancing, responders must learn to work better across digital channels in order to build trust and foster community engagement in the sensitive and context specific manner required for an effective public health response. The IRC is noting an uptick in disinformation in its country programs since March, specifically the manipulation of health messaging for short-term political gain, most notably in Colombia, where some beneficiaries believe that the virus is a conspiracy created by the governments to divert attention from issues such as corruption, violence, unemployment, and social inequality.

This makes projects like the IRC-led Signpost Project-- a responsive digital information service designed for populations caught in conflict which now reaches 1.6 million people in 7 languages worldwide-- all the more indispensable, especially given surveys that reveal Signpost as the only information source for as many as 75% of users. Signpost is an interagency project run by the IRC and Mercy Corps, in collaboration with a myriad of local partners, that provides community-led, localized, and contextualized information that speaks to the lived reality of its clients in their languages, in simple terms and meets them digitally on the platforms they already use. This is accomplished with specialized personnel, evidence-based communication strategies and cutting edge technology that is refined through collaborations with tech companies such as Google, Trip Advisor, Twilio, Box, Zendesk and more. In light of growing COVID caseloads in Latin America, ongoing humanitarian distress and clear accurate information voids, Signpost is now launching in Mexico after kicking off a response in Colombia. The launch in Mexico comes at a crucial time as the IRC plans to help people stuck in limbo from the "Remain in Mexico" policy to figure out how, if at all, the US election results will impact them.

The IRC has established a global Taskforce to amplify our reach and strengthen our approach and learning on risk communication and community engagement (RCCE). Lessons from previous outbreaks indicate that the most successful communication and engagement strategies must be responsive to local problems and build on and engage with existing community stakeholders and networks. The current approach to RCCE is sometimes uncoordinated, poorly targeted and risks failing to contain the spread of COVID-19. The IRC's RCCE vision is that representatives of all community members, particularly the hardest-to-reach populations, actively participate in developing and disseminating the information they need to stay safe, access services, and make healthy decisions for themselves and their families throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The IRC is working alongside community leaders from diverse populations (women, youth and other marginalized groups) to identify and track trending topics of misinformation/rumors. This trend analysis is then shared with technical experts to craft an accurate response to the misinformation which is then shared with the populations to contextualize, translate and ground those technical responses into something that is recognizable to their lived experience. We then try to support those groups with a dissemination plan alongside frontline staff within IRC.The IRC is currently implementing elements of RCCE in all 41 countries in which we have a presence, putting people at the center, working with local institutions, organizations, and community members to deliver the right information to the right audiences in accessible and relatable ways.

*To combat the spread of misinformation, IRC is expanding its Signpost responsive information project, that uses digital information platforms to respond to information needs to populations affected by crises. A collaboration between the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Mercy Corps (MC) and developed with the support of technology companies Google, Cisco, Trip Advisor, Twilio, Box, Facebook and Zendesk, Signpost consists of four components: bespoke information products hosted online on various platforms, connectivity via Wi-Fi hotspots to enable access to digital information, two-way communication facilitated by moderators via community-building social media channels, and regularly updated maps to locate health and other services. Since 2015, Signpost has served approximately 2 million individuals in seven languages through a website, Facebook, Whatsapp, blog, and an app across eight countries. *