Senior Policy Manager, Institute for Strategic Dialogue
As we respond to the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, governments are mobilising resources to ensure citizens are kept safe and healthy, while protecting their economies and institutions. However, COVID-19 was the not the only thing to spread exponentially across the world – the spiralling ‘infodemic’ of disinformation surrounding the pandemic also threatens our cities and citizens.
At the Strong Cities Network we have been analysing how disinformation around the pandemic is impacting our education systems and extremism, in two articles. You can read the second article here.
With school closures in effect across the globe, many students are now learning remotely. This presents a number of challenges both to parents and education sectors: first, the rapid provision of resources via on/offline means; second, continued safeguarding of young people without direct contact; three, effective pastoral care in a time of national crisis.
In this context, existing online harms are thrown into sharper relief. Students are likely to have increased access to and engagement with digital platforms, often unsupervised, and will face an information landscape rife with confusion, panic and fear. Many parents are struggling to balance working schedules with childcare, so may have limited capacity to monitor how or where young people are engaging online, or indeed monitor their own habits. Research has shown that older groups are highly susceptible to ‘fake news’, and seven times as likely to share false stories on Facebook. It is therefore essential to adapt Digital Literacy materials via a public health lens, helping to protect and reassure all people, as well as keep them well-informed on the pandemic.
City authorities can rally local actors, in particular tech hubs and the press, to establish the following:
1. What resources already exist which can be repurposed?
E.g. Media and Digital Literacy curricula; resources on how to spot fake news; activities and information concerning online harms. Engage key organisations in this field, who may well be mobilising of their own accord. It is important to build a unified response across the sector, signposting other organisation’s tools and materials – without this, you risk creating multiple ‘trustworthy sources’ which can confuse things further.
Be consistent in where you are directing people, and where they can expect to find updated information throughout the crisis. This may include global organisations like WHO, multilateral platforms like EUvsDisinfo and EU DisinfoLab, national Ministries of Health and telecomms regulators like Ofcom in the UK, or independent/tech-led providers like FullFact, Snopes, infotagion.com and the Google Fact Check Tool.
2. How can these resources be collated and disseminated to key groups?
E.g. by engaging school leaders, partnering with local media outlets, creating a database on City Council websites or posting on other popular platforms. Note that some households will have limited access to computers and/or the internet, so engagement should not happen exclusively online. To increase reach, you could include segments on local TV and radio stations or send out text messages with key information. Educators may wish to print and post activities to less affluent households, who will otherwise struggle to participate.
3. What new materials are required surrounding the pandemic, and who should take ownership for their creation and distribution?
E.g. creating a pipeline between analysts, academics and various civil society groups. The priority should be translating research, which is often inaccessible for non-experts, into public-facing outputs on an ongoing basis. You may have a range of organisations who can use the same information pipeline, but create different products for maximum reach (e.g. articles, briefings, televised interviews, infographics, animations, explainer videos, quizzes, even comedy songs and memes!).
4. Who are the ‘credible messengers’ in your community?
Consider engaging local public figures and celebrities, who are often perpetrators of misinformation and increase the virality of fake news. Also make sure to reference the most influential platforms for young people in your area, such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube – they may offer ways to transmit messages directly, in a format which is more relevant and engaging for that demographic. Think creatively: could you include a ‘Weekly Myth-Busting’ segment on your local radio station, or via a Facebook Live address from the Mayor?
5. How can you involve the community in mapping mis/disinformation?
For example, setting up a tip line or online amnesty where people can submit rumours, conspiracies, ‘us versus them’ narratives, hate speech and other concerning content related to the pandemic. Where possible this should include the origin, as some information goes viral on encrypted platforms like WhatsApp, which are difficult to track. Public officials can then address trends as they emerge, rather than fighting fires retrospectively.
We at the Strong Cities Network will be working to support our cities and partners in every way that we can, through the promotion and publication of resources, toolkits and guidance, and by helping to connect cities and experts with global counterparts. We welcome any resources, tools or expertise you know of or which you can offer our members to help tackle the spread of fake news. What is your city doing? Feel free contact us at [email protected]