Rooted in Trust (RiT): Debunking COVID Misinformation Among Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Evita Mouawad, Internews Project Manager, on how the Rooted in Trust program is tackling COVID misinformation among Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

As we have witnessed repeatedly, with war comes waves of refugees. In times of crisis, accurate information from trusted sources can save lives. But when access to these trusted sources is cut off, misinformation can fill the information void. If these rumors take root, misinformation can make it difficult for people to believe scientifically valid information as refugees are unsure which source to trust.

The Rooted in Trust team noticed a trend while working to debunk COVID19 misinformation with Syrian refugees: Individuals were more likely to trust sources of accurate information with a physical presence in or near the refugee camps.

Since the onset of the Syrian conflict, neighboring Lebanon has come to host close to 1.5 million Syrian refugees, most of whom reside in informal tented settlements or sub-standard shelters spread out across the country. Due to Lebanon’s currently dire socio-economic situation, often refugees with advanced degrees are forced to compete for poorly paying jobs. By fleeing for safety from the war zone, they exchanged comfort and status for poor living conditions while enduring primitive water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.

Since the onset of the Syrian conflict, neighboring Lebanon has come to host close to 1.5 million Syrian refugees, most of whom reside in informal tented settlements or sub-standard shelters spread out across the country.

Evita Mouawad, Internews Project Manager

Refugees make up close to 30% of Lebanon’s population and are highly vulnerable to infectious disease outbreaks due to the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions they are subjected to. An estimated 88% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are trapped living far below the poverty line.

This environment is not only fertile grounds for the spread diseases. It’s also an ideal environment for the spread of COVID-19 rumors due to a lack of trust in public institutions sharing information on the one hand, and a growing competition for any advantage to access basic resources on the other. With limited and rationed supplies, any piece of unverified information could translate into key advantages in access to water, food, and medicine.

The Rooted in Trust (RiT) team has collected hundreds of unique rumors (2.7k in its first phase in 2021, 208 so far in 2022) encompassing themes of COVID-19 transmission, variants, symptoms, vaccine efficacy, treatments, and remedies among others. Data was collected in Arabic from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp, in addition to private groups and personal accounts that have high user engagement.

Without trust in public institutions as verifiable sources, Syrian refugees were turning to SMS and WhatsApp for sharing unverified rumors. This spread misinformation and paved the way for the spread of communicable diseases, like COVID-19, as valid hygiene, and safety science hit barriers of rumors that, if fact-checked by trusted sources, could have been debunked.

Many survey respondents and interviewees mentioned having a higher disregard for sources that did not have a physical presence in their community while Syrian NGOs, family and friends, and medical professionals working directly with Syrian communities were mentioned as trusted sources for COVID-19 information more often than official sources like the WHO or MOPH.

In order to equip other nonprofits working to provide COVID-19 refugee services in Lebanon with the knowledge and tools needed to collect, analyze and tackle COVID-19 rumors, the Rooted in Trust team has organized multiple Rumor Tracking Trainings (RTTs). Leading health actors physically present in the country such as International Medical Corps (IMC), Medair and the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) participated in RTTs in February and March of 2022. The post-training questionnaires show that 100% of attendees felt confident in their ability to communicate better about COVID-19 and vaccines, and also 100% had an increased understanding of how to manage misinformation and rumors.

Together with partners who completed the RTT training, an open-source database at the national level was established where key actors working on COVID-19 awareness can track unique rumors and fact-check them in near real-time. Being able to track the source and spread of the rumor landscape across Lebanon and Syrian refugee camps allow these groups to tailor their awareness materials accordingly.

Internews has joined efforts with the Maharat Foundation—the key partner in the first phase of this project leading the collection and analysis of online rumors and misinformation from the Syrian refugee and wider Lebanese populations.

The Maharat Foundation works with the Lebanese RiT team to understand and respond to the needs of journalists reporting on the pandemic, with a distinct focus on supporting smaller, independent media, grassroots reporters, and citizen journalists delivering trustworthy information to the Syrian refugee community.

Along with this initiative, we will do our best to also encourage further discussion among health actors and community members regarding the root causes behind the most common rumor trends. With RiT giving valuable insights into how rumor-based barriers form and spread, misinformation can now be addressed through innovative, targeted programming and awareness campaigns.

Refugees uprooted by war can rebuild trust and confidence in local institutions as valid sources of information. Physical presence, consistency, and a sense of partnership accelerate the trust-building relationship between humanitarian NGOs sharing information and the refugee communities they serve.

Now, by partnering with Rooted in Trust, these same distribution platforms of SMS and WhatsApp groups can be transformed into trusted channels that broadcast information from verifiable sources instead of unscientific sources of misinformed rumors.

Rooted in Trust (RiT) is a USAID Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs (BHA)-funded project run by Internews to support humanitarian and public health agencies combat and manage the spread of rumors and misinformation about COVID-19.