The term ‘fake news’ entered the popular lexicon around the U.S. elections of 2016. It is used to describe both misinformation (false or inaccurate information) and disinformation (malicious and purposeful spreading of false or inaccurate information). Broadly, it covers untrue, or partially true, information such as rumours, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and deliberate disinformation campaigns. While there has been increased focus on disinformation since 2016, it has been a near constant security threat for humanitarian organisations for the past decade. Polio vaccinators in Pakistan still report disinformation as one of their biggest challenges. Humanitarian organisations struggle to respond to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar due to the the anti-Muslim campaign. The White Helmets volunteer life-saving activities have been hindered by a well-documented disinformation campaign. The battle against disinformation isn’t helped when what is originally billed as ‘fake news’ turns out to be true – like when the UN admitted that peacekeepers were the likely source for a cholera outbreak in Haiti that killed thousands after years of denial. Misinformation during COVID-19 tends to revolve either around conspiracies or suspicions people already have (e.g. xenophobia – anti-Muslim, anti-Western), or ones that conveniently blame what people don’t understand (e.g. 5G, Bill Gates, Chinese intelligence agencies), or are simply intended to sow distrust of legitimate experts and authorities (e.g. the World Health Organization, John’s Hopkins University). A documented disinformation campaign against an international health organisation has begun in CAR. Misinformation tends to spread best in areas where access to reliable and credible information is limited, where people are already traumatised or fearful, and where there is a disruption to normal life. This means that many of the contexts in which humanitarian agencies work – such as refugee camps, countries experiencing conflict, and unstable political environments – are particularly prone. Insecurity Insights, which tracks insecurity related to humanitarian aid, have reported anti-foreigner sentiment in Kenya, South Sudan, Bangladesh and DRC. How should organisations address the disinformation challenge? Awareness Don’t ignore misinformation. Understanding the media environment in which the organisation operates in every location is critical to know what type of misinformation will be perceived as credible. This includes ‘safe’ places or places identified as being low risk prior to COVID-19. Your organisation and personnel could be as vulnerable to misinformation in the U.S. as in Turkey. Find out the groups that will spread misinformation and the means by which it will spread – normally social media or apps like What’s App. Consider appointing someone in each location to monitor local media and social networks in each location and report on disinformation being spread. Analysis Like all safety and security risks, disinformation should be analysed to determine if it is truly a threat and whether that threat is low or high. The old adage here applies ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ Is the disinformation simply words or is there a likelihood that people will act on those words causing physical danger and harm? Sadly, countering misinformation with truth is often irrelevant as what people believe to be true is often enough from them to perpetuate violence. Action InterAction, a U.S. INGO Forum has produced a Disinformation Toolkit which outlines a variety of actions NGOs can take when aware of online disinformation – each has an advantage and disadvantage and these must be weighed carefully against staff safety and security.
Organisations have a critical role to play in managing and countering disinformation. These include:
Keep staff regularly informed with credible information related to the pandemic. Disinformation thrives where there is a lack of credible information.
Talk to staff about the importance of reporting ‘troubling’ information – remember that staff themselves might not consider it misinformation or untrue. However, if they report troubling rumours, messages and reports then the organisation has a better chance of preparing any repercussions.
Talk to staff about how to verify reports and sources and don’t share unverified information. A troubling amount of misinformation is shared by NGOs themselves.
Maintain good liaison with the other NGOs working in the same region/area and share information about any troubling information emerging. If you share information which later proves to be false make sure to update all of the parties with whom you initially shared it.