Disseminating clear, accurate and accessible information in a language that people understand is critical to tackling misinformation and slowing the spread of COVID-19. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted that alongside the virus itself the world faces a “dangerous epidemic of misinformation.”
Misinformation fills the spaces left when people’s voices aren’t heard and their questions aren’t answered.
Monitoring social media and other discussion platforms are important ways to understand people’s concerns and identify the false information circulating. Health officials and humanitarian organizations involved in the response need to invest in multilingual fact-checking to ensure people have access to the information they need and want. Translators without Borders has partnered with Internews to monitor social media channels in Simplified Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Indonesian and Urdu to identify trending misinformation. Here is what we are hearing, how it relates to lessons from past outbreaks, and what responders should do about it.
What are we hearing?
Our monitoring reveals that people are looking for answers and wide-ranging rumors are abundant. Questions such as “Can mosquitoes transmit COVID-19?”, “Can the virus survive in hot weather?”, or “Are people with Type A blood more likely to catch COVID-19?” are common across language groups. Often these questions are left unanswered or answered only with speculation from other social media users.
The most persistent rumors we hear are around ways to avoid catching the virus. Eating garlic, ginger, eggs, pepper or bananas, taking Vitamin D, drinking local herbal infusions, or gargling with salt water are just some of the preventive measures circulating. None of them is true. Trending posts containing inaccurate information about supposed cures often misrepresent it as recommendations from “health experts.” Some incorrect information and advice has been wrongly attributed to organizations like UNICEF.
Some proposed “cures” have negative consequences, like those that encourage excessive alcohol, smoking or taking various medications. In extreme cases, misinformed posts have had life-threatening consequences. Another recurrent dangerous theme is fear of people who have contracted COVID-19. This escalates sometimes to posts inciting violence against sick people to stop the spread.
Simple and accessible formats work
Our work shows that the rumors that spread quickly are often very simple and use words or images that are easily accessible. Memes and messages including video or audio have greater potential to go viral, whether they contain factual information or not. These formats are easily shareable and digestible by all audiences.
This is a stark reminder that both language and format matter to ensure fact-checked information reaches everyone, including the most vulnerable and non-literate individuals.
Lessons from past outbreaks apply
The problem of misinformation in public health emergencies isn’t new. Lessons from the most recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo provide insight into its impact and how to address it. TWB found that people wanted answers to their questions about the disease, not just general instructions. Without up-to-date information in plain and accessible languages and formats, people wondered if they were being told the truth, and rumors persisted. The use of technical terms and concepts that were not consistently or clearly translated and explained in local languages created further confusion, frustration, and fear. Several people told us they did not seek treatment for fear of misunderstanding or being misunderstood – and being misdiagnosed with the disease as a result. Health communicators often lacked detailed knowledge of the latest developments to calm people’s fears and address questions.
This contributed to an environment of distrust between responders and community members. While the Ebola outbreak is not yet over, concerted efforts to address communities’ concerns and counter misinformation in their languages has played a crucial role in controlling it.
Trust in the source is linked to whether a message is believed
Trust in the source is an important determinant of whether a message is believed. When information is delivered by a trusted friend or family member, or via a trusted news source or local authority, it is more likely to be believed. Our recent research in Bangladesh confirms that people often prefer to receive information about COVID-19 from these trusted sources. This lesson should be leveraged in rumor-countering strategies.
What should COVID-19 responders do?
Rumors about COVID-19 are circulating widely, repeated across multiple media and in multiple languages. Ignoring or dismissing them isn’t wise, even if some may seem less influential. These rumors will persist unless people have the information they want. Health officials and organizations involved in the response can ensure people have access to timely and factual information that they can understand. Here are three key actions responders must take:
1. Understand people’s questions and concerns.
That means not just giving them information, but listening to them. Monitor social media and other discussion platforms to understand what information people need and want, especially where expert information on COVID-19 is not available in their languages. Language technology such as natural language processing, machine translation, and automated keyword tracking make this possible at scale, even for marginalized languages.
2. Develop rumor-countering messaging based on people’s questions and concerns.
That messaging should be multilingual, accessible, and actionable. Don’t stick to communication only in the official or dominant languages; instead, translate key messages and materials into the languages people understand. And consider people’s literacy levels and intellectual and physical impairments: audio and audiovisual formats can increase the reach of key messages. Avoid jargon or technical terms that many people won’t understand; instead, use simple words that engage with people’s concerns and don’t stigmatize. Develop messaging that makes the situation feel manageable, with advice that is relevant to people’s specific situations.
For example, WHO is developing pictorial myth-busting postcards, and IFRC publishes a weekly factsheet to dispel popular rumors. Such resources are urgently needed in a wider range of languages and in formats that people can easily share through different channels.
3. Partner with trusted, local influencers.
Community leaders, religious leaders, health workers, and local media outlets can amplify dissemination and engagement efforts. Involving them will increase the uptake of key messages in relevant languages and formats.
Here are some useful resources: Internews: rumor tracking methodology and CDAC: Rumour has it: guidance on working with rumours.
For more information on TWB’s COVID-19 language services, please contact us at [email protected].
Written by Manmeet Kaur, COVID-19 Response Lead, and Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer for Translators without Borders
This project is funded by the H2H Fund, a funding mechanism for H2H Network members. The fund is a rapid funding vehicle for network members responding to humanitarian crises.