How to Counter Disinformation and Misinformation about COVID-19 Vaccines

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The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).

To fight false information about potential COVID-19 vaccines, newsrooms must place collaboration ahead of competition, fact-checking experts said during a panel discussion this week produced by ICFJ and the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN).

“Collaboration is the only way out, if there is one, to fight misinformation,” said IFCN Associate Director Cristina Tardáguila, who is based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Competition will only help misinformation,” because rushing to break news ahead of a rival news outlet too often leads to the spread of inaccuracies, she said.

“If journalists were able to collaborate more, then I think it could be seen as a public service that would restore trust in the media,” said Lee Mwiti, chief editor of ICFJ partner Africa Check, which promotes accuracy in Africa’s media and public discourse.

Tardáguila and Mwiti talked with ICFJ Director of Innovation Oren Levine about strategies for fighting misinformation and disinformation related to vaccine development.

Misinformation around COVID-19 has run rampant since January, and distrust of vaccines was a public health threat even before the global pandemic, Levine noted.

“Vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases,” according to the World Health Organization, which calls vaccination “one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease.”

 

 

That situation is only worsening as the race to create a vaccine intensifies. Panelists shared these strategies for combating false news about potential vaccines:

Go where the false info originated

“There are times I also think we need to look more like disinformation actors,” while spreading verified news and debunking falsehoods, Mwiti said. That may attract those who saw the original video to correct information. For example, if a video loaded with misinformation goes viral, AfricaCheck will “try to counter that by also doing a video and trying to seed it into the same communities or the same channels that the original video did.”

[View past webinars and key quotes]

Focus on official sources

“Do not trust your uncle on Whatsapp. Do not trust a tweet that comes from unofficial sources. It's time to heavily use official sources,” Tardáguila said.

Be skeptical

Stop just typing whatever people say in your interviews. We always have to be critical of what we hear, because if not, we are giving oxygen to mis- and dis-information,” Tardáguila said.

Report the scientific community’s reactions

“If you're reporting on the Russian vaccine [announced this week], please make sure that your headline brings the information that testing is still being done or that the international scientific community is still looking at it with some doubts. Make sure not to leave this to the very last paragraph,” Tardáguila said.

Run media literacy campaigns where audiences spend time

For example, AfricaCheck has run media literacy campaigns on Whatsapp, Mwiti said. “It has been done in Kiswahili in Kenya and pidgin in Nigeria. We’ve gotten very good reception to this, just teaching people the basics of fact-checking and doing it in nice, nifty ways that you can share on Whatsapp, and people quite like them,” he said. “They're teaching you, but also they're in a medium that is quite widely used.”

The panelists urged news organizations to think creatively about how to reach potential audiences. For example, early in the pandemic, CongoCheck reporters donned masks for safety, then went door to door to collect phone numbers so that it could connect with audiences via SMS.

AfricaCheck was an ICFJ partner for the TruthBuzz fellowships in 2018 and 2019, and is currently working in partnership with ICFJ Knight Fellow Hannah Ajakaiye on a program to combat misinformation on health issues, particularly COVID-19.

[View past webinars and key quotes]

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