A new study commissioned by Internews examines how vulnerable communities consume news and information in Central Asia. Revealing widespread mistrust of information providers, the study points to the difficulty of reaching communities with verified information, particularly on COVID-19.
Read the full report in English or Russian
The quantitative data survey queried approximately 2,000 respondents across vulnerable communities in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, complemented by 500 qualitative semi-structured in-depth interviews and 120 interviews with content producers – journalists and bloggers across the region.
The focus on the information needs of vulnerable communities – defined as labour migrants and their families, refugees, stateless people and ethnic minorities, as well as rural populations, youth, minorities and marginalised groups – provides a window into how to combat misinformation and disinformation among those most affected by the economic and health impacts of the pandemic.
Key findings show confusion, disagreement over reputable news sources
The single biggest impact of the COVID-19 crisis on information trends is the increase in people’s overall news consumption.
One respondent, a 22-year-old woman in Kyrgyzstan, said “[Before COVID-19] I was not signed up to news pages about news in the city. I read what I came across. [Now] I subscribed to Instagram pages about the situation in the city. After COVID-19 appeared, I started following the news.”
Respondents who spoke about increased news consumption often also mentioned Telegram, WhatsApp and social networks as sources of news. Reliance on online sources of news grew as overall consumption rose.
However, the drastic increase in news consumption was often reported as being followed by a reversal in consumption, and increased skepticism of a variety of sources. Respondents spoke about fatigue of COVID-19-related news several weeks after the start of the pandemic.
International media was cited as more reliable and accurate for COVID-19-related news compared to local news. Local news is less dependable primarily because there is a deficit of credible, independent and financially sustainable local media in the region. Few local media outlets are equipped to create meaningful coverage of vulnerable communities such as labour migrants, refugees or stateless people and ethnic minorities.
Concerning disinformation, while survey responses indicate there is general awareness that “fake news” exists, consensus about what qualifies in that category is scarce. For example, some report scepticism about COVID-19 statistics, whereas others consider the entire pandemic a hoax.
Further, there is a divide between what types of media users find reputable. The survey data and in-depth interviews suggest that those who report trust in traditional media, such as television and radio, have a correlating distrust in online media. Conversely, a similarly large group of respondents distrust traditional media like television and radio, primarily because these two types of media are associated with government control.
The report gives specific recommendations to develop concrete, data-driven and policy-implemented methods to ensure access to high-quality health information and help minimize risk of disinformation of vulnerable communities. These include production of information targeted to vulnerable populations, by government agencies, nonprofits, and for-profit media outlets.
“During the pandemic’s peak, the population in Central Asia had limited access to scientifically proven and verified information due to the inability of state agencies to provide it on time. The information flow needs to be re-tuned,” said Ambassador Peter Burian, EU Special Representative for Central Asia, at the launch of the report. “Governments will need to invest in providing services through digital channels and providing Internet connections in remote areas.”
Content producers are encouraged to produce content in languages other than Russian and the national language, specifically recognizing the native tongues of migrants, refugees, and stateless persons.
“In Central Asia as elsewhere, COVID-19 is far more than a health concern. Domestic violence has increased. The pandemic hits vulnerable communities such as refugees and stateless persons much harder than others. And we can see how disinformation in the media further exacerbates this vulnerability. As we emerge from the pandemic, the valuable insights of this EU-supported study can be used to foster more equitable and peaceful societies,” stated Hilde Hardeman, Director/Head of Service at the Foreign Policy Instruments Service of the European Commission.
Additionally, the report suggests the need to realize the potential reach and adaptability of social media to reach communities where they already are. For example, the most popular social network among ethnic minorities in Central Asia is Instagram – in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan an overwhelming majority of ethnic minorities reported using Instagram (83% and 78% respectively) – this is a tremendous opportunity to create news products on a platform already in heavy use.
“This study uniquely shines a light on the relevance of information to improving the lives of those most affected by the global pandemic,” said Jodie Ginsberg, Internews Chief Executive in Europe. “Improving the quality and reliability of news media, and realizing the potential of social and non-traditional media to reach people with the information they need is crucial.”
Read the full report in English or Russian
Socio-economic Impact of COVID-19 and Media Consumption among Vulnerable Communities in Central Asia was produced by the European Neighbourhood Council as part of the Strengthening Resilience to Radicalisation and Disinformation in Central Asia through Independent Media project, implemented by Internews with the financial support of the European Union.