Health and Healthcare Systems

We're fighting the pandemic. Now it's time to eradicate the infodemic

Eritrean migrants in Misrata, Libya look at a smartphone.

Straddling the digital divide … Eritrean migrants in Misrata, Libya use a smartphone. Image: Reuters/Ismail Zitouny

Cheri-Leigh Erasmus
Learning Director, Accountability Lab
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• The pandemic has led to a flood of inaccurate reporting and misinformation.

• Lack of digital literacy and poor internet access has exacerbated the problem.

• Accurate information lays the groundwork for accountability and better governance.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, we also find ourselves in the midst of what has been called an infodemic. For the last three months, we have faced a daily avalanche of information on the virus, potential cures and government mitigation strategies, along with endless punditry and politicization of the crisis, speculation on what our new normal would look like as lockdowns ease, and much more. This can often feel overwhelming, and it can be hard to make sense of what’s important and will keep us safe, versus what may make an already very challenging situation even worse.

The problem is that access to the internet does not equate to access to reliable information, of course. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, there’s been a flood of fake news, misinformation and irresponsible reporting that can be hard to validate amid other contributing factors, such as a lack of digital literacy. At the same time, many communities – particularly in the global South – are finding it more difficult to get online. Household income is dropping globally as a result of rising unemployment due to lockdowns, and limitations on informal labour and vendors. This is likely to deepen the existing divide as pay-as-you-go internet, used by many in developing countries, can become an unaffordable expense when shelter and food security are at risk. So the world faces a combination of many not being connected enough to access the right information; and others who are connected being bombarded with the wrong information.

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This challenge led the Accountability Lab to create what we call the Coronavirus CivActs Campaign, which gathers rumours and misinformation and dispels them through creative bulletins with validated information in accessible formats and using local languages. These bulletins are disseminated through the Lab’s existing grassroots networks via WhatsApp, email and social media, and sent to community radio stations to communities with less connectivity and/or low literacy rates.

Over the last 10 weeks, we’ve created more than 130 unique bulletins in 11 languages in Nepal, Pakistan, Liberia, Nigeria, Mali, Niger and South Africa. Our teams have covered a broad spectrum of themes, including important information on service delivery, emergency resources, government commitments and spending, and support services citizens can access when human rights are violated during lockdowns. The bulletins deliver facts, but these facts resonate because the approach is creative and relatable. In Nepal, we have used storytelling to humanize issues affecting thousands of migrant labourers who have lost their livelihoods. And in Liberia, our network of HipCo musicians are raising awareness through songs linked to the campaign and challenging young people to create their own cover versions.

The process creates active feedback loops, which are essential in fighting the pandemic: our teams gather rumours from the ground through our community networks and social media; conduct research, check facts and close the loop by packaging accurate information and disseminating it broadly while working with citizens and officials to solve problems.

Combating misinformation is a shared responsibility
Combating misinformation is a shared responsibility

First, access to information is a crucial component of a community’s ability to push for accountability. Large sums of money are being allocated for coronavirus mitigation strategies the world over, and it is important that citizens understand what they are being promised and what services they should be able to access.

Second, we’ve built trust with the communities where we have worked over the last eight years, and at a time when individuals turn to sources they trust for guidance, we find ourselves in a position to support a better understanding of the pandemic. As we know, proactive communication can strengthen trust between communities and government.

And third, this work builds a platform for more responsive governance that can bolster the social contract between people and governments, and ensure we are prepared for pandemics in the future. In Nepal, for example, we are now working with 18 local and city governments to build this feedback process into their decision-making; while in Pakistan our bulletins are being used to inform the work of a number of large NGOs and government programs. As these organizations become more responsive to people’s needs, they become more effective.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

At a time when misinformation and misunderstanding are extremely dangerous, we all have to take responsibility for combating the infodemic. Countering misinformation can be likened to wearing a mask: It’s a small act that protects others, and it can literally save lives. We can each do our bit by reporting misinformation on social media platforms and disseminating accurate information in our own social circles when we see fake news being shared. This pandemic will eventually be beaten; infodemics are far harder to eradicate.

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