Jeanne Bourgault

Q&A: Fighting 'fake news' to aid development

July 3, 2017
Fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories erupted into Western media during the 2016 United States presidential election. Yet in many media markets around the globe, these are longstanding challenges.

By Michael Igoe

Fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories erupted into Western media during the 2016 United States presidential election. Yet in many media markets around the globe, these are longstanding challenges.

“The most important piece is building locally-relevant, trusted information. That is the best counter, the best antidote [to fake news].”

In developing countries, where access to information can face significant hurdles and where press freedom often remains elusive, “information dystopia” can undercut efforts to improve health, make disasters worse than they already are, alienate vulnerable populations, and even incite violence, according to Jeanne Bourgault, president and chief executive officer of Internews, an organization that works to build trust in higher quality information around the world.

Devex spoke to Bourgault about some of the ways misinformation spreads in places where development organizations operate — and what they can do to push back against damaging narratives. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Is there an accepted definition of fake news? Is it right that it’s different from news that’s just biased or politically slanted?

In my opinion it’s purposely fake. You sort of call it when you see it. It’s not biased. It’s not unintended. It’s intentionally fake. We don’t organizationally rely on a single definition of it. In fact we view the phenomena as something, in the context of international development, that is part of how the rest of the world looks in many cases. We’re just feeling it at home [in the United States].

This mainstream media story that it’s become is just showing the Western world what the rest of the world have to grapple with in their media space very often, whether it’s misinformation, propaganda, hate speech, fake speech. All these dangerous types of speech are things that plague the rest of the world all the time and have for decades. We’re just feeling it in an extreme form here [in the U.S.] for the first time.

Was this a phrase or phenomenon you were familiar with before it entered into the mainstream lexicon during the 2016 U.S. election?

I probably wouldn’t have used it. Misinformation, propaganda, hate speech — those are the things that we use a lot more in the context of our work. I think misinformation is very similar. We call the whole thing an “information dystopia” — the whole mess.

“People are less reliant on traditional media, more reliant on Facebook, and Facebook is where speech can get very ugly, very very quickly.”

There’s a variety of reasons we’re in the mess that we’re in, and it’s not just political intent. It’s also a collapse of the [news] industry and the market basis. All the opportunities of the information revolution also have negative sides, and that’s what we’re starting to experience around the world. We view the whole thing as a bigger challenge than just fake news. It’s what we’ve been grappling with in the rest of the world for decades — changing and morphing into different challenges, but something for which the impact and significance [in developing countries] is all the greater.

Tell me about some of those things that you are seeing — why is this an even greater challenge in developing countries?

According to Freedom House, only 13 percent of the world’s population lives in a country deemed to have a free press. So 87 percent of the world’s population is dealing with something less than that. The benefits of a healthy media environment just aren’t reaching the rest of the world, and that’s why organizations like ours exist. We think that all sorts of positive things happen when you can get even a basic healthy media environment.

If you look at places like the Philippines — hate speech is, to us, one of the worst things out there that’s happening. Facebook itself, an amazingly powerful technology, is actually fueling this in a number of countries. In the Philippines, Facebook is called “hate book.” The hate speech that is so easy and happens so quickly on Facebook is just devastating in a place like the Philippines or Burma or many, many other parts of the world. People are less reliant on traditional media, more reliant on Facebook, and Facebook is where speech can get very ugly, very very quickly, and it’s very hard to control. That’s a more significant problem in the parts of the world where we work.

If you look at Pakistan, online harassment against women is driving women away from the internet. All the potential benefits they could have from internet access [are lost]. Online harassment becomes offline harassment and is downright dangerous.

In a place like South Sudan, you barely have any internet penetration, very low levels of media, but fake news is already being used to incite mass atrocities, really with devastating consequences.

Have you seen cases where efforts to implement development programs have been run off course by deliberate misinformation, rumors, or hate speech?

There are well-known examples of those — some of them relate to health interventions in Africa. Vaccines are introduced and there are all sorts of rumor and innuendo about what a vaccine trial is about — that it’s intentional poisoning or something like that. Rumors in the media landscape can be very devastating to development impact. In humanitarian crises and disasters … misinformation is actually a huge part of our work these days.

One of the things we think is really important, particularly in the health sector, is to engage local media, not just run campaigns. With campaigns, you can get your really specific message out, but if you don’t engage with the vernacular, popular media, you can get a very different message out on that side that undermines everything you’re doing in the campaign work. We’re really big advocates of that parallel track, which allows you to get your message out very effectively, but also to engage non-traditional players that are influencers in the information landscape, to make sure that they at least understand what you’re trying to do and know to come to you for questions — specifically when you are facing disasters, when people are stressed all the more and rumors can be all the more devastating.

That sounds like a difficult thing to do when people aren’t engaging with traditional media outlets. How do you engage with local media if it’s not well developed, or if people are getting their news primarily from Facebook?

You can do rumor tracking on Facebook. What you do is you engage people where they go. We have a whole rumor tracking approach that engages at every level, from SMS text messaging to posters on the wall to community radio. You have to address the rumor tracking really directly in the space where people are … You have to engage it on all the platforms, and you can. In relatively small communities, you find the trusted voices, and you find out where people are going, and you attack it at every level.

Radio has a really big, powerful role. It is a mass media that is easy to consume. There are no literacy issues, there are very few cost issues. If you can get on and engage local radio, it is a very powerful and still influential tool in a lot of the communities where we all work … It still is one of the most important media out there.

When you run into these cases of misinformation — for instance in some of the health examples you mentioned — do you more often find that they’re the result of just a general human tendency to dig up conspiracies and overstate what’s happening, or are they actually traceable to a deliberate effort that some group or person is undertaking for political gain?

I think it’s more human. We love dramatic stories. There’s fear at the root of a lot of this stuff, certainly the fear of unknown and relying on all sorts of things to get to answers for things you’re afraid of. When you’re facing a crisis such as Ebola, for example … you’re looking for answers. It’s really complicated information, and it’s just terrifying. I think most of it is human. There’s obvious exceptions to that when it comes to propaganda-type work. But the misinformation and the rumor mills are more out of fear.

In the Mediterranean response, when there were lots of rumors about refugees and what they should do — a lot of that was driven by traffickers, because they had a business they were running, and so there was some intentional misinformation coming out to keep their trafficking businesses going.

What kinds of narratives were traffickers pushing?

Rumors of successful journeys to Europe abound. Stories of illegal detention, rape, robbery and the perils of desert and sea crossings, meanwhile, are less often recounted by survivors. This month, the International Organization for Migration is launching the "Aware Migrants" campaign to improve information access for those considering the journey from West Africa to Libya, Algeria or Italy.

There was a weird one — and I don’t even understand the basis of this rumor — that you had to puncture your boat right before you got to shore or else they wouldn’t let you ashore. Maybe it was boat providers trying to make sure they weren’t reused or something like that? People were dying because of this. They were not making it to shore, because they thought that if they just punctured their boat then they would be saved and be allowed to stay in Greece. So that was one of the grotesque rumors that we had to counter.

But even just [issues like] where to go, where to get help, how easy it was. That was the worst thing — traffickers were saying, “get on this boat and you’re in Europe.” You’re on an island in Greece and you have another boat you have to take — the geography was often [misrepresented] to get people on the boats without knowing what they were going to hit on the other side.

Have you seen organizations successfully push back against fake news narratives or the actors that are pushing them? Do those strategies vary depending on whether it’s deliberate propaganda or unknowing misinformation and rumors?

I think there is a stream of things that is common with all of this stuff, things that we talk about when we talk about how to address this around the world. None of it’s easy. There’s no silver bullet to any of it. There’s no technology that can get this right. It is a slog to help improve situations. The most important piece is building locally-relevant, trusted information. That is the best counter, the best antidote. We are always looking for those trusted voices and helping amplify them. The reason this is all happening in [the U.S.] is the collapse of local news. People trust “their news,” they just don’t trust “the news.” That is the counter-strategy, and it’s a huge investment. It’s about long-term capacity building and sustainability and all the things that we do. That to me is the only long-term solution.

The power of storytelling is when it is used to introduce the reality of process, evidence and nuance. This often gets lost in global development communications, writes Global Communities Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs David Humphries.

The strongest example we have in the world is Afghanistan … One of the areas where there’s a big advance is the media. All the right investments went in right at the beginning in December 2001, when there was literally no media except for some old creaky state stuff. Lots of stuff happened — investments in media law and the opening up of the internet so that it was competitive, 94 television stations, over 250 radio stations all around the country … in communities that never had their own local news on the air. Mobile phone coverage, which didn’t exist before, is now at 89 percent of the population. There’s just a huge investment in building a competitive, locally-driven media landscape in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, still to this day according to the Asia Foundation, media is the most trusted institution in the country. In the vast majority of the world, media is declining, but in Afghanistan it still tops government, tops religious leaders — it tops everything. That’s a big deal. You make the investments, and you really build that local capacity and local relevance and make sure people have “their media,” not “the media,” and you can have a big impact. Editor’s note: In the Asia Foundation's 2016 Survey of the Afghan People, trust in religious leaders overtook trust in media by less than 2 percent.

Do aid donors recognize the importance of these investments? Are they funding this kind of work?

If you get the media right, every other development impact goes better. I think a lot of partners as well as funders believe that. We have a big humanitarian media program, and we have seen over the years when there’s cutting back at the end of a humanitarian response, funders will say, “don’t stop the media work because that greases everything else.” All of our shelter and water and education programs work better if people have the information they need and are able to engage with their own information landscape. We’ve seen this over and over again in humanitarian response where people say, “hey, we didn’t think of it that way before but now we agree with it.”

There have been big investments in countries around the world with, I think, big impact. We’re seeing that in Burma right now, certainly in Ukraine over the years — Ukraine which is in the center of a pretty nasty media environment, but has some great partners who are doing really amazing things. You see it in a number of countries where there’s been big payoff for the investments that donors have made.

(Banner photo: Jeanne Bourgault, president and chief executive officer of Internews. Photo by: Center for Strategic & International Studies / CC BY-NC-SA)