Online misinformation is hard to stop. It’s easy to pass along a rumor, even easier to believe one. But understanding when an online piece of information is false, or meant to cause harm, requires critical thinking skills and awareness.
This problem of identifying misinformation can be even more complex for new internet users, who have never had a chance to understand how to navigate the maze of online information. Luckily, research has shown that these skills can be learned.
In India – where millions of users come online each year from smaller cities and rural areas – a group of 253 journalists, fact-checkers, media educators, non-profit workers, and community radio representatives have come together to ensure people have the opportunity to learn how to assess the online information they access in their daily lives.
Reaching thousands with a network of trainers
These trainers – coming from different states and speaking many different languages – form the core training team of FactShala, a news and information literacy program launched in 2020 by Internews with the support of Google.org and the Google News Initiative and in collaboration with Dataleads.
Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, the trainers organized over 370 trainings and reached more than 18,000 people from non-metro cities and remote areas in rural India. Trainees included women’s self-help groups, aanganwadi (childcare) workers, community reporters, medical workers, farmers, refugees, LGBT community members, pensioners, housewives, environmental activists, tea garden workers, religious leaders, rural school and college teachers and college students. They were taught how to identify and resist misinformation via training sessions held both online and in-person.
The sessions were held in over 10 languages or dialects and often in the comfort of the participants’ homes, schools, offices and shops. Additionally, the 60 community radio stations that teamed up with FactShala created and broadcast a series of episodes on news and information literacy for their respective audience, and organized in-person group discussions in villages.
FactShala, envisioned as a classroom for facts, has its origins in the word pathshala – meaning place of learning in Hindi. The curriculum is based on insights drawn from a user study done with the guidance of the Stanford History Education Group and incorporates inputs from expert partners including Amity University, BBC, BoomLive, Don Bosco University, Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media and Hong Kong University.
Building trust by teaching locally
Arpna Chandail, a new trainer working with FactShala to reach communities in her native city, Jammu, comes to her work with a dedication to serving the community she grew up in. Drawn to journalism after witnessing turmoil at close quarters and seeing the impact of information on the lives of people, she worked as a reporter for top outlets in New Delhi for nine years, but more recently felt a pull to return home.
With FactShala, Arpna has managed to surmount the odds of low internet connectivity and COVID-19 restrictions to conduct in-person trainings with residents living in remote villages of Jammu.
Arranging these trainings is not always easy. It involves talking to local village headmen, convincing people about the need for misinformation training, and facilitating the trainings often in the absence of electricity and internet connectivity. And even when she is able to get an audience, people aren’t always immediately open to listening to strangers or accepting that they may be duped by misinformation.
Where others might give up, Arpna has created new ways to reach her audience. Using printouts of commonly circulated fake news messages as props and speaking in the local dialect, she has been able to actively engage otherwise reserved villagers. But above all, what made Arpna’s trainings successful was her understanding that media literacy training is not a ‘one-and-done’ activity, but innately intertwined with how people approach daily life. In order to engage residents in conversations about misinformation and become a trusted community voice, Arpna sits down with them after her sessions for a casual chat to learn more about their lives and circumstances, and share her own experiences struggling with “fake news.”
“People are getting information online … But they don’t know how to differentiate between the right information and misinformation or disinformation. They don’t know that everything on social media is not authentic. Through FactShala they are getting to know about this, which is a new kind of approach for them.”
Arpna says that FactShala has given her a renewed sense of connection with her life goal of improving access to information for all. “I joined journalism because I always wanted to do the reporting of issues related to the public… I wanted to know the reality of incidents in depth.” Now, helping everyday people separate fact from fiction drives her. “Information is power and FactShala is helping people to know how to use it… This is very crucial work.”
FactShala: India Media Literacy Network, is a news and information literacy project launched by Internews with the support of Google.org and the Google News Initiative and in collaboration with DataLEADS.
(Banner photo: Arpna teaches media literacy to people in rural areas of India. Credit: Internews)