A toolkit to tackle COVID-19 disinformation

The spread of COVID-19 has been accompanied by a rise in disinformation, making it even more difficult to protect citizens and prevent the spread of the virus. But many journalists are not equipped to counter the false information and rumours that spread rapidly online. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) recently approached RNTC to develop a toolkit that can equip journalists and bloggers in Uzbekistan with everything they need to effectively tackle disinformation around COVID-19.

By Louise Rasmussen

As early as February, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”. The sheer volume of coverage has made it difficult not just for the public but also for journalists to distinguish correct information and trustworthy sources from misleading ones as Brandon Oelefse, Director of Learning Programmes at RNTC explains.

A lot of journalists are seeing stories or information spread online and civil society is seeing things spread online, often without thinking critically about it. Things with higher amounts of views and high traffic are assumed to be true and are used to create stories, but there’s often something in these stories that’s incorrect or inherently untrue.

Different types of false information may complicate the task of verification even further for journalists on the ground:

Misinformation is false information that is passed on unknowingly – by someone unaware that it is false information. Disinformation is also false information, but is passed on with an intention to do harm. And malinformation is part true, but is used in a tactical way to do harm. So it’s partly true, partly false, and it intends to do harm.

Brandon Oelofse

The infodemic toolkit
RNTC has developed an infodemic toolkit in collaboration with OSCE and Mass Media Uzbekistan to help journalists tackle this combination of dis-, mis-, and malinformation in order for them to report responsibly on the COVID-19 pandemic.

RNTC’s infodemic toolkit is a free, interactive online course that has been developed in Russian, Uzbek and English. The course consists of interactive 6 modules, based on videos, and explanatory text that are designed to help journalists understand what the ‘infodemic’ is about, how to verify information, debunk false news, avoid amplification of disinformation and learn how to access trustworthy information online in times of lockdown. The toolkit also includes a ‘Debunkers database’, which aims to create a community around the users of the toolkit, and to raise awareness of fake stories that are circulating online:

People who’ve gone through the course can write blogs or contribute to our content. Obviously it’s peer verified and it’s checked before it’s posted. But the purpose of that is to provide a database on debunks that people have come across. An example is: There was a picture going around of a person lying dead in a square in China, but when it was reverse image searched, we found out that this was actually an art project from 2012.

Expert input
RNTC has drawn on a large network of experts. The videos in the toolkit include interviews with Craig Silverman, who is BuzzFeed’s media editor and the author of the Verification Handbook, and Aidan White, Founder and President of the Ethical Journalism Network, talks about the ethics of reporting during COVID-19. A number of investigative journalists who are specialised in online investigations, as well as Russian and Uzbek journalists have also contributed with their experience and expertise.

Professional skills for citizen journalists
Journalists, bloggers and citizens in Uzbekistan face a number of issues related to false information, leading the OSCE to suggest that there is a particular need for the infodemic toolkit in the country, especially because toolkits like RNTC’s have not yet been developed in Uzbek says Oelefse:

There’s a focus along the Eastern European belt on disinformation and fake news, but when it comes to Central Asia, there’s almost no focus on these things. But journalists in Uzbekistan are faced with issues of verification; many journalists were spreading disinformation and misinformation, not knowing that they were actually spreading “bad” information.

While citizen journalists play an important role in spreading information, they often lack the necessary skills and resources to verify the accuracy and sources of that information:

Many journalists and bloggers don’t have university degrees or haven’t studied the techniques of effective journalism. They learn them on the go. We see more and more that journalists are not career journalists. They have an interest in spreading information, but don’t necessarily have all of the experience or education of a journalist. So the toolkit is an accessible way to give people some practical skills to make their work and information better.

Looking ahead
Even though the OSCE only planned to have an Uzbek and Russian version, Oelefse explains that RNTC considered it important to develop the toolkit in English as well:

We have large digital communities across the world who are all grappling with issues of how to report during the pandemic, so we see that journalists in our networks could use these tools to improve their work as well. We also anticipate that there might be a second wave, and with it will come more disinformation.

RNTC has aimed to provide a broad take on misinformation, disinformation and malinformation based on what civil society actors as well as journalists and bloggers on the ground have experienced:

The toolkit remains relevant even without the frame of COVID-19. The same techniques should be applied to all information gathering and reporting; it is general good journalism practice, according to Brandon.

RNTC will offer a course later this year on how to counter disinformation, which will also include lessons that are covered in the infodemic toolkit.