In December 2021, I wrote Headlining, Part I: Spreading Misinformation, which defines “headlining” as a form of misinformation that uses a sensational headline to uncritically pass along false information.
I also offered tips and tricks to avoid falling victim to headlining, like taking a moment to pause and ask yourself, “Does this sound too good or too awful to be true?” and actually reading a news article before you share it. Now I want to take headlining and situate it directly in the contexts and communities in which international development practitioners work.
Photo: Aman Pal/Unsplash.
I don’t know about you, but I often get trapped into thinking that misinformation is strictly political. However, misinformation via headlining cuts across multiple spheres and affects average people (read: someone who does not consume political news or watch CSPAN for fun…). In this blog, I will focus on one key sector impacted by misinformation: public health.
Misinformation in public health did not begin with the COVID-19 pandemic. Through headlines written by academics and journalists alike, articles such as “Ebola Virus Epidemic: a Deliberate Accident?” and “Does the CDC Own an Ebola Patent?” called into question whether the Ebola epidemic of 2014 was manufactured, even though the articles provided no evidence. Similar misinformation was spread during the HIV/AIDS crisis, with articles such as “Mbeki Says CIA Had Role in HIV/AIDS Conspiracy” spreading the former South African President’s conspiracy theories related to the disease. In this way, misinformation was disseminated through sensational headlines such as this from the Daily Mail, which reads, in part: “Boston Lab Creates New Covid Strain That Has an 80% Kill Rate in Mice.” Such misinformation is not unique to the COVID-19 pandemic. What is new is that the internet has become one of the primary sources of health information for people around the world. This makes the speed and scale at which health misinformation is spread among communities that are coming online for the first time, possibly with lower media and health literacy, more dangerous than anything we have seen before—and we are seeing this firsthand.
In forthcoming research set to be published in January, DAI studied the impact of mis- and disinformation on micro, small, and medium-sized entrepreneurs in Cambodia, India, and Kenya, including the direct impact COVID-19 misinformation is having on those businesses. In one instance, a fermented foods retailer shared that rumors spread in her community via WhatsApp stating that fermented foods weaken one’s immune system making that person more susceptible to COVID-19. Though untrue, this information severely impacted the business owner’s operations, causing her to lose 80 percent of her income and forcing her to pick up a second job to survive.
While we don’t know if that rumor specifically came from a headline, it is not hard to imagine how people scared of contracting a deadly virus could read misinformation about fermented foods, internalize it, and uncritically share that article with friends and family out of an abundance of caution. In one study on misinformation in Southeast Asia, The Trusted Web found that 90 percent of participants were overconfident in their ability to spot fake news, and almost 40 percent had accidentally shared misinformation online. Further, a study from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore found that following exposure to online misinformation, nearly 1,000 participants reported modifying behaviors such as eating more garlic and regularly rinsing their noses with saline.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love garlic as much as the next person, but as much as I want it to, garlic cannot end the COVID-19 pandemic. And as easy as it is to latch onto and make light of this one example of misinformation, health misinformation has severe negative impacts at the personal, organizational, and project levels. In many cases, the COVID-19 infodemic misled people from getting life-saving vaccines, created unnecessary panic and fear, and lessened people’s trust in public officials. The impact that this misinformation can have on development projects is wide-reaching.
Consider this very general hypothetical: You’re on a project working to improve medical record keeping. Local public health officials want to digitize records to better respond to individual health needs and understand health trends in their community. To gather baseline data and begin piloting the platform, you and your team pull in existing physical records and begin surveying community members to fill in the gaps, making sure to protect personally identifiable information. One evening, you and your team get a message via WhatsApp based on an article posted on a community Facebook page titled, “Personal health records being collected to surveil citizens?” The post already has hundreds of likes, comments, and shares. What would you do? How would you respond to this misinformation?
There are likely many ways to react to that intentionally general hypothetical, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. What I do know is that projects can and have taken preventative measures when it comes to misinformation. In October 2021, the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded and DAI-implemented ASEAN PROSPECT team created a customizable manual to guide educators in addressing disinformation and promoting media literacy among students across the 10 ASEAN countries. As a result of the training, 82 percent of participants felt that their knowledge of the topic had increased, and 54 percent felt more equipped to train others on media literacy. Follow up four months post-training indicates nearly 90 percent of respondents applied what they learned and continued sharing materials within their respective education institutions, yet highlighted an ongoing need for more training and support on disinformation and media literacy.
In the face of infodemics and increasing reliance on the internet for health information, preemptive, preventative digital literacy training can go a long way toward helping projects and their beneficiaries not fall victim to headlining and other pernicious forms of misinformation. Headlining also serves as a reminder that misinformation comes in many different forms and that development practitioners must be ready to adapt their understanding of misinformation as the phenomenon evolves.