How social media falsehoods are re-setting the communications agenda, by Sana Bég, Director of Communications, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) for South Asia
There can be little doubt that we are living in an era where misinformation and disinformation spread at a faster rate than ever before. That perfect storm of the rise of social media as a primary news source and the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the intensity of the battle to find and disseminate truthful and useful information. Over the same period, disinformation targeting humanitarian organisations also increased in sophistication and scope.
We have faced an enormous challenge of health-related misinformation and disinformation, driven by a wave of uncertainty. Initially, Covid-19 wasn’t fully understood by scientists, as it was new. This gap was filled with malinformed guess-work, rumour and misinformation.
This is especially difficult and dangerous when you work in a sector that is dedicated to saving lives, as we do at Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF). We know that false information can kill. We have seen it. While rumours, lies and propaganda have always existed, the social media environments that allow messages to travel far and wide in a matter of seconds are new.
Both misinformation and disinformation refer to inaccurate information, shared with various interests and purposes. Misinformation is false information spread without the intent to cause harm, while disinformation is false information spread with the intent to cause harm.
The impact of declining trust
At MSF, we saw the direct impact of the steady decline in trust in medical institutions and in organisations like ours in countries where we’ve worked, from Nigeria to India, Iraq, Somalia and some parts of Europe.
The Covid-19 pandemic has fueled health misinformation, putting trust in healthcare providers such as MSF into the spotlight. In conflict contexts, where a lack of trust in the authorities sometimes exists, suspicion of the motives of healthcare providers can serve as the spark to incite attacks on healthcare workers and facilities, as we saw in 2020 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
With the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines, our teams slowly started working on vaccination campaigns in several countries. However, getting shots into people’s arms was often a challenge for several reasons. One, of course, has been the lack of equitable distribution of vaccines globally. But other factors made vaccinations a Herculean task: our teams faced vaccine hesitancy, staff resistance and widespread misinformation or disinformation. Rumours and misinformation circulating on the internet raised anxieties about the political motivation behind vaccinations to the fore, undermining the health of people living in conflict zones, who already find accessing healthcare a challenge. We implemented measures to combat these challenges, including digital and on-the-ground health promotion campaigns.
To learn more about how we can tackle misinformation and disinformation targeting our operations, patients and staff, MSF launched the ‘Tackling the information disorder’ project in early 2020. Once the project launched, our specialised team started interviewing MSF staff to learn how they deal with health-related rumours. While many reported how their projects collected and stored these messages in some capacity there was a unanimous sense that our community engagement teams in the field needed better tracking methods and a more robust way of building institutional memory of health misinformation.
To help solve the issue, our team sought out a solution, called MSF Listen. This is a global MSF online platform where health misinformation and common rumours about MSF can be reported, so we can analyse and triage them in real-time. It acts as both an institutional memory with a response history, and as a workflow, in which MSF staff can efficiently communicate about and plan responses to misinformation that impacts their work.
How data can counter misinformation
Over the past two years, we have learned that the problem with false information campaigns targeting MSF is much larger than we had initially thought. While rumours, misinformation, disinformation and other categories of false information are related, they are also different in nature. We need to develop a common language and understanding of these issues to tackle them together.
We rely heavily on data to help us counter false information, and to help us save lives more effectively and efficiently. For example, in the midst of an outbreak, our project teams look to our epidemiologists to learn where and how fast a disease is spreading and how it can be stopped. The data enhances our evidence-based decision-making, and directly helps save lives.
Additionally, we have multidisciplinary medical teams that support and enable our field work, drive improvements in public health policy and practice. By prioritising person-centred care and working alongside communities, we develop highly contextualised, data driven, holistic evidence-based guidance.
By combining research, data and medical humanitarian experience, we help create opportunities for knowledge sharing, which in turn helps to shift understanding and practice across the professional landscapes of medical humanitarianism. As a whole, this also allows us to use data to directly counter false information.
Being authentic in an age of inauthenticity
The environment of misinformation makes it all the more challenging for us to build trust and authenticity. It may take us years to build that authenticity, but it can disintegrate in an instant. For example, recently, there was a large disinformation campaign targeting the International Committee of the Red Cross, with the intent to discredit its aid activities in Ukraine. The organisation was compelled to move to public platforms and come out saying that the information circulating online was not true, and was putting its staff at risk. We were mindful that this could have very well been us. Even big names with years of experience and authenticity are at risk.
The fragmentation of news sources has definitely played a part in the reliability of information. We once knew which the trusted sources were, but the proliferation of online media, social media and state propaganda posing as media has been hugely problematic.
From a behavioural and cognitive standpoint, the wave of disinformation contributes to an information overload that can crowd out important information. Individuals are confronted with large volumes of increasingly conflicting information, which demand a greater effort to navigate and compete for audiences’ fintie attention span.
In today’s world, there is no longer a single, verified, trusted source of media that people believe they can rely on. That diversity of media choices can of course be an asset, but it also makes the hunt for authentic information all the more complicated.
At MSF, one of the things we need to do in that battle for authenticity is to take ownership, to be accountable. This often means being unapologetically who we set out to be as an organisation, and as individuals. In this ratings and algorithms-driven world, it is easy to get swayed by audiences, by what the flavour of the month is and where trends are going. We need to keep that laser focus instead on what our core mission is – to provide emergency medical care to those who need it most..
We need to stay true to this, because in this cacophony of misinformation and disinformation, there is no choice but to be unwavering and resolute, as we uphold truth in the humanitarian space.
Sana Bég spoke to Allegory’s Associate Director Iain Aitch in a webinar on Thursday 21 July, where attendees had the opportunity to ask Sana questions about countering misinformation and her work with MSF.
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