RightsCon is the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age. The annual conference brings together thousands of participants including business leaders, policy makers, government representatives, technologists, and human rights defenders to take part in hundreds of sessions. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 edition took place online and RNW Media was one of the organisations invited to present a virtual workshop.
Titled ‘IT’S AN INFODEMIC! Identifying and monitoring COVID-19 rumours and misinformation on Twitter’, the strategy session attracted wide interest, with more than 200 people registering to take part even though there were only 25 places available. Brandon Oelofse, Learning and Programme Director of RNTC (RNW Media’s training institute) introduced the session. He explained that there had been an explosion of interest in the virus on our platforms’ social media channels around the world, and a clearly expressed need from our young target audience for reliable information.
True, false or harmful?
Much of the discourse around ‘fake news’ conflates three notions: misinformation, disinformation and malinformation. But, explained Oelofse, it’s important to distinguish messages that are true from those that are false, and messages that are created, produced or distributed by “agents” who intend to do harm from those that are not:
– Mis-information is information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm.
– Dis-information is information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organisation or country.
– Mal-information is information that is based on reality, such as (some) leaks and hacks, hate speech and harassment and used to inflict harm on a person, organisation or country.
Participants were then invited to break into smaller groups and record the COVID-19 rumours circulating in their countries and whether these could be categorised as mis-, dis- or mal-information. On reporting back in the larger group, it became clear that certain myths were prevalent across very different contexts. Much misinformation related to substances that would supposedly ‘prevent’ or cure COVID-19. Onions, garlic and chilli were popular ‘remedies’ in many Asian countries, Russian social media posts recommended drinking vodka while a rumour doing the rounds in Kyrgyzstan is that dog meat can help recovery from COVID-19. This particular myth is rooted in the fact that prisoners in the former USSR used to eat dog meat to treat TB which is also a respiratory disease. Herbal remedies, sunlight and bleach were also being promoted in many countries from Finland to the Philippines and the USA.
Masks and conspiracies
A rumour prevalent in some African countries is that COVID-19 will only kill white people while black people are immune. There were many examples from around the world of misinformation relating to statistics about numbers of deaths and of those infected. In some cases, such as Brazil, the government is believed to be actively manipulating statistics. Mask-wearing is often perceived as being for weak people and losers and orders to use masks are seen as a violation of freedom. Conspiracy theories around 5G technology or doubting the very existence of COVID-19 are also widespread.
The session then moved on to consider a case study from RNW Media’s platform in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Habari RDC. Trésor Kalonji is a social media specialist with the Habari team and he first presented a video outlining the situation in what he describes as “one of the world’s biggest misinformation hotspots”.
The video explains how RNW Media uses social listening techniques to fight COVID-19 disinformation. It also connects the disinformation that surrounded the previous Ebola outbreak with the current pandemic and describes some of the activities Habari is implementing in response to the crisis. Julie Postel, a data researcher with RNW Media, then explained how social listening can be used to capture what people are saying online. With this knowledge it’s then possible to create effective alternative narratives and support the development of digital literacy.
Social listening involves identifying and tracking key words on a specific topic, both on your own platforms and across the online social media landscape. In this case findings were collected in French and included terms such as COVID; COVID-19 and Coronavirus. Kalonji adds that the term “Corona business” was also tracked because of a widespread belief in DRC that there is a link between the epidemic and funding from international organisations. Twitter was chosen as the channel to study because it’s popular with Congolese politicians and decision makers and misinformation in DRC often originates on Twitter before spreading to other platforms such as Facebook.
Kalonji presented three examples of fake news identified in the social listening study: that people were accepting money to say their relatives had died of COVID-19; that Black people are immune; and that black skin is genetically modified to resist the disease. He then explained how Habari has responded to such misinformation with a dedicated fact checking dossier #HabariDécrypte. (Habari Decrypt). The aim is to increase their users’ media literacy and provide reliable information alongside alternative narratives – stories that challenge prejudices and encourage readers to critically examine their preconceived ideas.
The hour-long session closed with a short introduction to the recently launched RNTC Infodemic toolkit – a series of online modules designed to equip journalists, bloggers and media makers with the skills they need to combat disinformation.
You can read more about RNW Media’s use of social listening here.