September 11, 2017
Preventing Folklore, Rumors (or
Rumours), Urban Myths
& Organized Misinformation
From Interfering with Development
& Aid/Relief Efforts & Government Initiatives
On another page, I list situations
where rumors and myth-spreading has interfered with development, aid or
relief efforts, including post disaster situations, and government
initiatives - including elections.
Based on my experience as a researcher and practitioner, and everything
I've read (and I read a LOT on this subject), rumors that interfere with
development and aid/relief efforts and government initiatives get their
It is that last reason, the desire of an individual or community to
believe an alternative narrative, a desire that is stronger than the facts,
that is the hardest to overcome, and the one that organized misinformation
campaigns exploit the most - and that's why I have highlighted it in this
list. Some research has shown that conspiracy theories, rumors and
alternative media sources are shared
much, much more often than mainstream sources on Facebook.
- misinterpretations of what a community is seeing, hearing or
- previous community experiences
- strongly-held cultural beliefs
- willful misrepresentation by people who, for whatever reason, want to
derail a development or relief activity,
- unintentional but inappropriate or hard-to-understand words or
actions by a communicator, or
- the desire of an individual or
community to believe an alternative narrative, a desire that is
stronger than the facts
Anyone working in development or relief efforts, or working in government
organizations, needs to be aware of the power of rumor and myth-sharing, and
be prepared to prevent and to counter such. This page is an effort to help
Also note that simply
countering disinformation with credible, truthful information, however
diligently, often isn't enough, and you may need to look into advanced
strategies. There are university initiatives, media companies and other
groups that are developing procedures to more-immediately debunk false news
stories, verification mechanisms for investigative journalism, and software
tools that create automated systems to immediately identify crowdsourced
efforts by professional online provocateurs and automated troll bots pumping
out thousands of comments. This
blog by Dan Swislow identifies some of those efforts, as well as the
consequences of disinformation campaigns.
- cultivate trust in the community through communications, thereby
creating an environment less susceptible to rumor-baiting
- quickly identify rumors and misinformation campaigns that have the
potential to derail humanitarian aid and development efforts
- quickly respond to rumors and misinformation campaigns that could
derail or are interfering with humanitarian aid and development efforts
A good place to start in preventing folklore and misinformation from
interfering with development or aid initiatives, or addressing such when
it happens, is with the acknowledgement that interpersonal sources of
information play a HUGE role in communications delivery all over the
world, whether in a low-literacy village in a developing country or a
large urban area in an emerging economy or a "fully developed"
Western-style democracy. Interpersonal communications can both promote AND
counter rumors and myth and, therefore, must be kept in mind when
launching any communications strategy -- or counter strategy -- regarding
a development or aid activity.
Also, a conclusion that can be reached in looking at the various ways
myth and misinformation has interfered with development efforts is that
the more a development activity is seen as outsiders-coming-in, the more
likely it can be derailed by rumors. By contrast, the more development
activities or government initiatives are perceived as owned and controlled
by the people to be served, the more rumor-proof such activities will be.
If messages come from those a community trusts, and via the ways a
community communicates naturally, the messages are more likely to be
The importance of social mobilization as a part of development
activities is tremendous in preventing or countering myth as an obstacle
Social Mobilization, as defined by UNICEF, is a broad scale
movement to engage people's participation in achieving a specific
development goal through self-reliant efforts. It involves all relevant
segments of society: decision and policy makers, opinion leaders,
bureaucrats and technocrats, professional groups, religious associations,
commerce and industry, communities and individuals. It is a planned
decentralized process that seeks to facilitate change for development
through a range of players engaged in interrelated and complementary
efforts. It takes into account the felt needs of the people, embraces the
critical principle of community involvement, and seeks to empower
individuals and groups for action... Mobilizing the necessary resources,
disseminating information tailored to targeted audiences, generating
intersectoral support and fostering cross-professional alliances are also
part of the process. Social mobilization in total aims at a continuum of
activities in a broad strategic framework. The process encompasses
dialogue and partnership with a wide spectrum of societal elements.
Another point to keep in mind is the idea of "motivated reasoning." As
described by sociologist Andrew Perrin of the University of North Carolina,
Chapel Hill in an article by LiveScience.com's Jeanna Bryner, "Motivated
reasoning is essentially starting with a conclusion you hope to reach and
then selectively evaluating evidence in order to reach that conclusion." It
means working backward from a firmly-held belief to find supporting facts,
rather than letting evidence inform one's views and hoping people go in the
right direction. The key is to know what that belief is at the onset, and
what is driving the desire to hold on to this belief despite facts.
The ICEC and
Global Social Mobilization, October 2000
The International Communication Enhancement Center
Eryn Newman at the University of Southern California co-authored a paper
that summarizes the latest research on misinformation ("Making The
Truth Stick and The Myths Fade: Lessons from Cognitive Psychology"), and in
one recent study, Newman presented participants with an article (falsely)
saying that a well-known rock singer was dead. The subjects were more likely
to believe the claim if the article was presented next to a picture of him,
simply because it became easier to bring the singer to mind – boosting the
cognitive fluency of the statement. Similarly, writing in an easy-to-read
font, or speaking with good enunciation, have been shown to increase
cognitive fluency. Newman has shown that something as seemingly
inconsequential as the sound of someone’s name can sway us; the easier it is
to pronounce, the more likely we are to accept their judgement. More
about the paper and similar studies here.
With all this, and more, in mind, below is a list of activities I've
seen reported as being effective in preventing and countering rumors and
myth from interfering with development or relief activities, or government
initiatives, as well as activities I've undertaken myself. However, please
note that this is not a comprehensive list (I'm sure there are more out
there), nor are all of these communications activities appropriate for
every development/aid or government effort:
Also see: How to Handle Online Criticism.
How a nonprofit or government organization handles online criticism is going
to speak volumes about that organization, for weeks, months, and maybe even
years to come. There's no way to avoid criticism, but there are ways
to address criticism that can actually help an organization to be perceived
as even more trustworthy and worth supporting -- and the Internet can help.
- Acknowledge with every strategy developed that everyone is a
potential messenger - every
staff member at your organization, from the receptionist to the
executive director (employee, consultant and volunteer), every
client, every person who
observes a development action - and even the family members and
neighbors of all of these people. Remember this as you design any
development activity, campaign or response. Every staff member should
have a basic understanding of what your organization is trying to
communicate and be able to verbalize it, in their own way, accurately,
appropriately, to family and friends. Note that it takes ongoing effort
to ensure that basic understanding - one meeting with a slide show isn't
going to create this basic understanding.
- Never assume that people with senior management titles, nor local
people, automatically understand how to communicate effectively, nor
that they are ready to communicate regarding a particular development
activity. They need to be trained, just like everyone else, regarding
message delivery and fundamental facts. During the early days of the
H1N1 virus scares in the USA, even Vice-President Biden of the USA, a
very educated and respected leader, misspoke about prevention methods in
an interview with the press, causing widespread confusion. Have
briefings for all staff regarding any development activity, campaign or
response - more than once.
- Don't prepare plans based solely on facts and statistics, because
people don't reason with and respond to pure facts and logic alone.
Think about how people -- both messengers and community members --
currently feel about the issues at hand, what their emotions are
around the issues, and the symbolism is that they might be seeing in
events and responses that might not be obvious via facts alone. Fully
think about their emotional response, define it, and then look for the
reasons behind their desire to believe something despite the facts.
Think about what is important to them at their core, because of their
values, and think about how to appeal to those values to steer them to
truth. Appealing to their emotions may work better in changing hearts
and minds, even if doing so might seem antithetical to staying
fact-based, however, providing people with accurate information alone
usually doesn’t help regarding a highly-emotional issue; they simply
discount those facts. For instance, if they feel that family is more
than important than anything, how could you frame the issue regarding
family values? If people see themselves as religious, how could you
frame the issue within that religion or its values? If you appeal to
someone in a way that will reinforce what they identify as - a religious
person, a mother, the head of the household, a farmer, a person that
values practical experience over formal training, an environmentalist, a
conservative, a patriot, a member of a particular tribe, etc. - you have
a better chance of engaging them successfully.
- Remember that humans
have natural tendency to resist correction. Correct information
may make them double-down on their beliefs in misinformation. For
instance, when people are given scientifically-based information that
shows vaccines are safe and most certainly do NOT cause autism, people
who believe vaccines are unhealthy will rarely change their minds.
Instead, those people will say the information is false, that it's been
manipulated by large pharmaceutical companies, etc. Think about
ways to guide people towards correct information while acknowledging
their real grievances that may lead to the misinformation, and without
making them feel or look "wrong" or stupid. Try to cite sources that
they do believe in and trust. If you can talk about your own
experience where you have yourself have been mislead, how you felt when
you learned the truth, and how it felt to change your mind, all the
- Keeping in mind the previous bullet about humans having a natural
tendency to resist correction, think about non-threatening ways to talk
with an audience about this natural tendency. The
Oatmeal created panels to challenge readers in the USA about how
humans do, or don't, accept factual information, and it's a really
fun, non-threatening exercise. Could you create something similar to
take a group through and discuss before you talk to them about research
or revelations that might make them angry, frightened and/or hostile?
- Explore the harm being caused by the misinformation. What are the
real-world consequences? Can you show an actual person, family or
community that has been harmed by the rumor or misinformation? Put a
human face on the harm. This has proven particularly effective in
getting anti-vaccine believers to reconsider their beliefs.
- Make a list of common counter arguments against what you are trying
to promote and how to address them, using the aforementioned and
following advice. This will be a central part of your strategy. Revisit
this and revise it continually.
- Provide ongoing training to all those who will take part in
delivering the message (international staff, national staff, partners,
volunteers, clients, etc.), and ongoing opportunities for two-way
discussion with these messengers. Don't just stand in front of the group
and talk; role play, provide model conversations, and let the group
express their own fears and reservations so the group can, together,
explore how to address such. The goal is to ensure that:
- the core messages are fully understood by everyone delivering
those messages - including when they deliver them informally to
family and neighbors,
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) can be all answered in a
- messengers feel confident and remain fact-based and accurate in
all communications, etc.
- messengers know how to identify and address hostility/fear,
- messengers know how to identify possible sources of
- messengers know when to not
- everyone is committed to continual internal communications
regarding their work and what they are hearing in the field.
- Map and utilize formal and informal, official and unofficial, social
networks (sports events, river clothes-washing point, religious-based
gatherings, ceremonies, online communities associated with sports or
politics or even religion, celebrity fan-based communities, public
showings of popular movies, etc.). These networks will be used to
deliver the message (whether you plan for such or not). They can also be
used to listen to how the message is being received. Billboards,
banners, handouts and the purchase of advertising space wherever such is
available (in a printed program, on a race car, whatever) can be very
effective in reinforcing a message you are communicating in other
- Develop a plan of action with local representatives on how to provide
immediate information as quickly and widely as possible in the case of
possible panic (as panic can lead to rioting, looting and fear-driven
crime). Such a plan should incorporate radio, TV, community meetings,
phone text messaging (not just Twitter,
as not everyone interacts with Twitter via cell phone text messages) and
various online avenues on the Internet (online discussion groups, Facebook
or whatever the most popular social media platforms are in the country,
etc.). Even in an area with low Internet access, people have family and
friends in areas that DO have Internet or cell phone access, and they
can communicate what they read or hear via phone, text message and/or
- Monitor and supervise, formally and informally, on an ongoing basis,
communications activities - formal and informal, face-to-face and
online. Look at what is being said on Twitter, on Facebook, on popular
online fora, and in the comments section of online newspaper articles. Be
prepared to reply to these online comments if they are spreading
misinformation. All partners and messengers, formal and informal,
should feel empowered to be monitors, to gather and report on feedback
(and that they know exactly how to report observations about
conversations they are seeing/hearing). They should understand that
community conversations happen formally and informally: on talk radio,
at religious-based gatherings, around dinner tables, while shopping,
within text messages, etc.
- Cultivate strong political commitment that is exhibited and
constantly reinforced at the local, regional and national level, among
various government offices (not just one), via both formal (speeches,
conferences, memos, press conferences) and informal communications
(meetings over meals or during family gatherings) from government staff.
Encourage and support the coordination of communications efforts among
different government offices, to make sure messages are uniform. Observe
message delivery by government officials to ensure deliverers are
remaining fact-based (see next bullet for ideas on how to test their
- Organize ongoing consultations with religious leaders, to garner
their ongoing public involvement/endorsement, both on how to deliver the
message and advising on how to counter hostilities/fears. One meeting
will NOT fully educate this (or any) group on how to communicate
effectively. One meeting won't change minds if they already are leaning
towards believing misinformation. And don't just ask yes or no questions
("Do you agree?"); ask questions that encourage the person to put the
message in his or her own words ("How would you describe this initiative
to, say, a mother that comes to you and is fearful about the activity?"
or "Why do you think this initiative is important to the community?").
It's important to read as much as you can about various religious views
on the issue, be it related to human health, the environment, human
rights, whatever, and to know the variety of views even within one
religion regarding the issue at hand.
- Involve/consult with both traditional/officially-recognized community
leaders and those who are unofficial (key women members of the
community, or a non-religious, non-elected community leader who is
sought after for advice, for instance), both on how to deliver the
message and advising on how to counter hostilities/fears. Efforts must
be ongoing (see entry regarding religious leaders, above).
- Collaborate with and invite the participation of NGOs in message
delivery and informal monitoring of how messages are being received.
Coordinate efforts with their own.
- People tend to have hostilities reduced when they believe their
concerns are being heard and addressed. Allow those who are opposed to
an activity, or who might be, to voice concerns, both publicly and
privately. Remember that one meeting will probably not be enough for
fears to be aired, and honest feedback may come through unofficial
- Identify those who might be possible sources of misinformation,
intentionally or unintentionally, before undertaking any field-based
activity. Try to understand their psychology of belief: why they or
anyone else might believe something that is not true and reject or
ignore fact-based information that contradicts that belief. Try to
identify real grievances people have had with government, media,
doctors, certain businesses, other communities, etc., that may lead to a
resistance to fact-based information. Fully explore the reasons behind
the desire people have to hold on to a belief despite the facts - you
may need to create an ongoing communications strategy that addresses
ONLY those reasons.
- Get different influential people on board who represent different
factions. If there is conflict between different factions -- different
religious groups, different tribes, different alliances, etc. -- do your
best not to look like you are favoring one side over another. Be as
inclusive and neutral as possible. Stress again and again that your goal
is related specifically to a development activity, not to anything
- Consult intensively with radio and TV for message delivery through
public service announcements, dramas, news delivery, talk shows, etc.
Never assume that a reporter understands the facts regarding an activity
you are undertaking without someone from your initiative actually
briefing that reporter - and telling them upfront how you will be
answering certain questions. Also, ask reporters/show hosts what they
are hearing from their audiences. For instance, Craig
Manning, a health communications strategist with the Viral Special
Pathogens Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
was sent to Guinea at the first outbreak of the Ebola crisis in March
2014. When one of his colleagues, Pierre Roland, an expert on Ebola,
gave a presentation at the U.S. Embassy in Conkary about mitigating
risks of transmission, Manning recorded him, then had the content edited
into 30 second snippets translated into 10 local languages and broadcast
over local radio stations and TV.
- Cultivate newspaper articles and design and place newspaper ads.
- Continually collaborate closely with grade school and secondary
teachers/instructors, and university-level instructors, to reinforce
messages and provide feedback on community reactions.
- Look for ways for the private sector and trade unions to be involved
in delivering or reinforcing messages, particularly if there is any
chance such could be a source of misinformation.
- Ensure that those who will be involved in a field activity or will
provide any communications about such do not act in a way that is
counter to what is being promoted (those who are going to promote polio
vaccinations for children, for instance, should have their own children
vaccinated; those talking about AIDS-prevention should know that taking
a shower after sex doesn't prevent HIV/AIDS; etc.).
- Ensure information on the key organizer's web site, as well as online
information by partner organizations, is accurate.
- Use the Facebook status
updates, Twitter feeds and other
online social media platforms of all participating organizations to
deliver messages and counter misinformation. This bullet point deserves
an extensive, detailed strategy of its own.
- Seek out misinformation online
and be ready to counter it with your own Internet activities, via
web sites, online discussion groups/bulletin boards, and email. Good
examples of this are FEMA's
Hurricane Sandy Rumor Control web site in 2012 and its Hurricane
Irma Rumor Control site in 2017. If someone is circulating a
video, for instance, that represents a falsehood, you need to be ready
to debunk it. Can you prove that people in the video, for instance,
aren't really random members of the public but, rather, members of a
particular group? Is the video really from the location it says it's
from, or can you show that it's not? Learning about the uploader of the
video is a good way to gauge his/her credibility. What other videos has
the uploader distributed? Are they from the same location? Do they have
the same production quality, or does it look like they were taken by
different people/cameras? Are there other online or social media
accounts linked to that user that can help identify where this person is
based and what sort of media and information he/she posts? You can also
upload any image or screen grab from a video to the Google image search,
and Google will produce the image’s online history. You can also copy
the video url into the Amnesty
International YouTube Data Viewer and the site will give you the
video’s thumbnail images and a link to a reverse image search for each
- If misinformation campaigns can be anticipated, such as before an
election, consider recruiting volunteers specifically to be trained and
ready to identify and report such, as appropriate. For instance, in
anticipation of state assembly elections, police in Bareilly, Uttar
Pradesh (UP), India started
recruiting "digital volunteers to "keep an eye on and counter
'online rumour-mongering", to report on and counter
'communally-sensitive messages and polarization propaganda' that "has
potential to disturb peace in the region." A deputy inspector general of
police said "A riot-like situation takes place at many locations due to
false rumours spread on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other
such sites. As UP is gearing for state assembly elections, scheduled for
next year, there are chances that few persons will try to mislead people
for their communal agenda, creating law and order problem. To thwart
their attempts, we need such initiatives." However, such efforts have to
be handled with extreme care: coordinators of such an initiative could
be accused of creating an effort to censor lawful dissent or initiating
an intimidation campaign against those who don't agree with your
organization or the government.
- Create billboards and posters that reinforce messages
(culturally-appropriate, preferably designed by community members) and
place these where people, including specific parts of a community (young
men, mothers, elderly women, children, etc.) gather.
- Garner public endorsements by famous entertainment or sports figures
(for instance, in Liberia in 2008, a pop star created a pop song to
allay fears regarding the upcoming census). Remember that "famous" is
relative: someone well-known among adults may not be well-known among
teenagers, and vice versa, or someone famous in rural areas may be
unknown in cities, and vice versa.
- Organize high-profile events focused on message delivery (formal
campaign launches/press events, theater/live performance, rickshaw
- Provide opportunities for the public to see the activity, either
firsthand or on TV, in a way that allows them to see and understand
whatever process or activity is being undertaken.
- Provide references to reliable medical information, such as the University
of Maryland Medical Center's Medical Reference Guide a
comprehensive medical reference includes more than 50,000 pages of
medically-reviewed health content written in human-friendly language. It
includes a Complementary
and Alternative Medicine Guide, which examines different herbal
medicines, such as turmeric,
from a medical research point of view. Also, Science-Based
Medicine is a web site dedicated to evaluating medical treatments
and products of interest to the public in a scientific light, and
countering the often dangerous narrative of many "alternative" medicine
advocates - though science-based, it uses very accessible language.
- Partner with researchers and media outlets to detail and publish
information about deliberate attempts to promote misinformation and sow
discord. For instance, this
commentator specializes in secession
movements within the U.S. that, sometimes unknowingly, are supported
by foreign players. Local newspapers and radio outlets, as well as
major regional and national media, may be happy to do a story
specifically about misinformation efforts in a particular region,
provided you can give them all of the information they need to verify
that such is happening.
- Highlight and promote success stories. If you have changed someone's
minds, sit down with that person and find out what helped them to change
their mind. Telling that person's story, about how they thought about
the issue before your interventions, and how they think now, could help
convince others. Could that person become a spokesperson for you?
- Be careful in how you characterize those that are resisting your
medical information, your scientific data, etc. Belittling them with
insults can create a backlash. No one likes to be called stupid - or for
it to be insinuated that they are such - for instance. That said, DO
build an ongoing, fact-based narrative that fully exposes motivations
for misinformation, if there is such - for instance, various people and
organizations showing the basis for the scientific fraud that gave rise
to the fears regarding vaccines has helped tremendously in debunking
harmful, dangerous myths about vaccines and autism.
- Be ready to be flexible and to adjust your communications strategies
and activities suddenly.
- Have a plan for crisis communications always ready! These steps
should be taken before any crisis takes place:
- Design a crisis communications tree, where anyone who is a part
of the message delivery, including partners, can report
communications problems/concerns to a focal point, who then ensures
the problem/concern is communicated across the core communications
team and appropriate action can be taken immediately.
- Develop a written protocol on what to do if there is a need for
rapid deployment of information and spokespeople, and make sure it
has been communicated to all appropriate staff and that they each
understand their role. Regularly revisit this plan with staff (no
one will learn a protocol through just one presentation of such).
- Compile a list of reporters, radio talk show hosts, radio DJs, TV
personalities, bloggers, Tweeters and leaders of communities of
faith (churches, mosques, temples, etc.) who you will contact if you
need to respond to rumors immediately (you should already have an
established relationship with these folks!).
- Compile a list of people at your organization and partner
organizations (including government officials) who can be rapidly
mobilized, briefed and made available to talk to the press.
- Remember that everyone is a potential messenger; all
staff should be briefed about an emerging communications crisis and
know what to say and how to respond in the course of their work, no
matter what that work is.
- Remember that your goal is message saturation; you want the
targeted population to hear your message more than once, and from
more than one source.
was an ontology-based text mining system for detecting and tracking the
distribution of infectious disease outbreaks from linguistic signals on the
Web. The system continuously analyzed documents reported from over 1700 RSS
feeds, classified them for topical relevance and plots them onto a Google
map using geocoded information. Archived versions of the system can be seen
by searching for www.biocaster.org
The tool no longer exists, but provides an excellent example of how
technology could be used - a similar tool could be developed to monitor
Twitter, for instance.
In my opinion, the four lessons that all the aforementioned activities
reinforce altogether is:
- the vital importance of being in-tune with local people and how they
feel, knowing exactly what their emotions are around an issue, even if
you don't agree with their feelings
- the vital importance of exploring why people WANT to believe a
narrative that is counter to the facts and being sensitive to that
- that those behind a development or aid effort must work to be
perceived as coming from a place of honesty, sincerity and respect for
local people, and
- that the message you want a community or region to embrace must be
owned and delivered primarily by local people themselves.
Also, the above suggestions are no substitution for reading in-depth about
rumor and myth interfering with development efforts, and reading studies and
reports about the psychology around public health campaigns and the like.
Recommendations for further reading will be provided as I find such!
Sources and recommendations for more information:
(if a URL no longer works, try searching for the title on Google,
or look at the source code for this page and cut and paste the desired URL
(if a URL no longer works, try searching for the title on Google,
or look at the source code for this page and cut and paste the desired URL
- The United
Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Communication for Development (C4D)
web site section shares information and materials any initiative
can use to help educate individuals and communities about how to prevent
the spread of the Ebola virus and how to care for those already
affected. Materials include:
- Fact Sheets – For example, key messages, brochures with facts, and
- Visual materials like a poster of signs and symptoms and a flip
chart for health communicators.
- Audio materials like songs and public service announcement (PSA)
- Training materials.
- Guidelines for community volunteers.
- Planning Documents – For example, a West and Central Africa
(WCARO) strategy framework model.
- Other Tools – the Behaviour Change Communication In
Emergencies: A Toolkit, Essentials for Excellence –
Research, Monitoring and Evaluating Strategic Communication,
and the UNICEF Cholera Toolkit.
- The Communications Initiative
is compiling information from a range of organizations regarding how
to address communications challenges regarding Ebola. It’s updated
frequently, and it’s a must-read for any development communications or
public health communications specialist.
- In a study published in January 2016 in Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences , researchers examined the
diffusion of misinformation on Facebook, examining the spread of both
conspiracy theories, or “alternative, controversial information, often
lacking supporting evidence,” (for example, the idea that vaccines can
cause autism) and scientific news. They found that the spread of
misinformation online generally takes place within clusters of people
who tend to consume the same types of information - they become “echo
chambers,” sharing only the information that further solidifies their
beliefs and polarizes communities that community from science and facts.
They found that highly segregated communities, or echo chambers, existed
around each type of content, and then content tends to circulate only
within its own community. Community members are engaged in confirmation
bias, the tendency of individuals to pay attention to or
believe information that confirms the personal values and beliefs they
already hold, rather than allowing their beliefs to be changed by new
information. Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental
science at Drexel University, says in this
article about the study, “Individuals want to maintain their
self-identity and self-image.They’re not going to read something that
challenges their values, their self-worth, their identity, their belief
- There is research
that shows that overwhelming someone with facts can actually make them
double-down on the misinformation they believe. A study described
paper by Schwarz et al, found that a flyer by the Center for
Disease Control (CDC) in the USA containing "facts and myths" about
vaccines increased intentions to vaccinate immediately but had the
opposite effect after only half an hour - when the participants began
remembering the myths as facts. This article "I
Don't Want To Be Right" in The
NewYorker by Maria Konnikova agrees, and notes, "The longer the
narrative remains co-opted by prominent figures with little to no actual
medical expertise - the Jenny McCarthys of the world - the more
difficult it becomes to find a unified, non-ideological theme. The
message can't change unless the perceived consensus among figures we see
as opinion and thought leaders changes first." The Konnikova article
cites numerous articles about people's perceptions about facts and is
worth of a read - and a reread.
and Behaviour in Mass Health Interventions: Lessons from the Global
Polio Eradication Initiative. "Interpreting resistance to
vaccination as essentially religio-cultural marginalises an
understanding of resistance as the rational and strategic response by
households and communities to systematic conditions of inequity and
exclusion." This is the central thesis advanced in this paper, which
draws on a desk-based review of literature, real-time epidemiological
evidence, and the author's own field-based experience working with the
Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) over periods since 2001 in
Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Noting that the definitive
eradication of polio worldwide now hinges on maximising household oral
polio vaccine (OPV) acceptance and delivery in just a few endemic
countries, author Sebastian A.J. Taylor cites evidence suggesting that,
"while vaccinator performance generally, and physical access related to
security, create blockages in the vaccination supply-side, unwillingness
to be vaccinated by small groups of households and communities
constitutes the principal demand-side barrier." This resistance, "often
occurring in areas with substantial Muslim population, has been
associated with fear and rumour fuelled by ignorance", as well as
religious objection, which Taylor describes as "problematically merged
in a religio-cultural interpretation of resistance as a kind of Islamic
obscurantism." Yet, he observes, attitudes about the polio programme
"appear to vary substantially within small geographic areas. Rather than
being a matter of common belief, public orientation appears to be shaped
by a combination of religio-cultural and more localised socio-economic
and political factors - in particular, the potentially aggressive nature
of mass vaccination, and the perceived under-supply of other development
full paper is available by subscription only.
Handbook, by John Cook, Global Change Institute, University of
Queensland, and Stephan Lewandowsky, School of Psychology, University of
Western Australia. "Debunking myths is problematic. Unless great care is
taken, any effort to debunk misinformation can inadvertently reinforce
the very myths one seeks to correct. To avoid these 'backfire effects',
an effective debunking requires three major elements. First, the
refutation must focus on core facts rather than the myth to avoid the
misinformation becoming more familiar. Second, any mention of a myth
should be preceded by explicit warnings to notify the reader that the
upcoming information is false. Finally, the refutation should include an
alternative explanation that accounts for important qualities in the
original misinformation." Here's an excellent
review and summary of the book.
anecdotes, testimonials & urban legends are used to counter
science -e.g. in public health initiatives. Offers advice on how
to How to recognise this tactic and lots of examples of it happening,
particularly in mass media. It doesn't offer concrete steps on how to
address it, but it does help you understand it more, and the examples
might be good to use in a training of public health care workers and
Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?" An article from National
Geographic that does an outstanding job of explaining why people
trust their gut or what they hear from friends rather than
science. "Even when we intellectually accept these precepts of
science, we subconsciously cling to our intuitions... as we become
scientifically literate, we repress our naive beliefs but never
eliminate them entirely. They lurk in our brains, chirping at us as we
try to make sense of the world. Most of us do that by relying on
personal experience and anecdotes, on stories rather than statistics."
Facts Don’t Change Our Minds New," a review in The New Yorker
about discoveries about the human mind that show the limitations of
reason in changing minds, as detailed in three books: The Enigma of
Reason, The Knowledge Illusion and Denying to the
have 3 tips to help journalists debunk misinformation," an article
that summarizes research by Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth, and
Jason Reifler, a lecturer at the University of Exeter, called "Which
Corrections Work," about specific advice for how journalists can
best correct misinformation. That advice is coupled with related
experiments they conducted to reinforce the tips. October 2013.
Backfire Effect: The Psychology of Why We Have a Hard Time Changing
Our Minds," a review by Maria Popova of Brain
Pickings regarding the book You
Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy
Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself
by David McRaney.
and conspiracy theory are not victimless crimes against science.
"What’s the harm in applying alternative medicine to treat cancer? Why
should others care if I don’t vaccinate my children? Such decisions are
all too often based on a poor understanding of how science works – and
usually guided by someone’s commercial interest... When some people are
taken as 'authorities' and their claims, however wacky, believed, then
the subsequent decisions that millions of people may take could harm
them or even bring a premature end to their lives."
the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,
a paper by Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek
J. Koehler, and Jonathan A. Fugelsang, looks at how people will believe
"seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and
meaningful but are actually vacuous." In
the study, research participants were presented with pseudo-profound
bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized
into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning
(e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies,
the propensity to judge these statements as profound was associated with
a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive
style, supernatural belief). "These results support the idea that some
people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it
is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a
discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding
claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements
as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit
- The death of a teen in 2008 in Ukraine was wrongly blamed on his
vaccination for measles and rubella, emboldening anti-vaccine activists
who stoked the public with misinformation and social media. Parents lost
confidence and vaccination rates plummeted. A coalition of corrupt
importers were also pocketing exorbitant markups for medicines, and when
UNICEF initiated international procurement in response, the companies
countered the threat to their lucrative schemes with waves of
misinformation aimed at confusing parents, dividing Ukraine's own
institutions of health governance, and keeping the international
community at bay. UNICEF, WHO, Rotary and others, working with Ukraine
health ministry allies, have worked hard to successfully counter vaccine
misinformation, and as of 2017, they are making great progress. More
in this brief article on the Communication Initiative web site.
tips for verifying citizen footage that every journalist should know,"
Bair for Muckrack.com.
Building Online Tools Skeptics Can Use
"We need online tools against bunk now more than ever. With the rise of
social media (Twitter, Facebook et al.) there is an ever increasing
ability for falsehoods such as rumors, hoaxes and misinformation to
spread rapidly online. Many of these relate to news or political issues
that may not directly concern some skeptics... Facing a huge load of
work, these fact checkers have adopted new electronic methods including
online research, custom software and crowdsourcing. At the same
time, the newspaper industry has been looking for ways to evolve their
business to replace the loss of traditional revenue and adapt to the
Literacy From A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health
Message, by Helen Osborne. This has used as a textbook in
Seminar in Health Literacy at Tufts University School of Medicine.
"Learn the key principles and strategies of effective health
communication presented in a simple, informal manner by one of the
nation’s leading experts in health literacy...Whether you are a
physician, nurse, pharmacist, allied health professional, case manager,
public health specialist, practice manager, health care educator,
student or family caregiver this book is for you." This book won the
2012 New England Chapter of the American Medical Writers Association
Will Solimene Award for Excellence in Medical Communication. It includes
a sample syllabus and slide presentations.
- The Digital Resource
Center, part of Center
for News Literacy at the Stony
Brook University School of Journalism, offers the material from its
14-week News Literacy course for free, online. Each lesson - slide
presentations, associated media, lecture notes and recitation materials
- stands alone and can easily be integrated into your own program.
- The University of Bristol School of Experimental Psychology has a list
of faculty at various institutions they consider to be global
experts on debunking of misinformation. The portal provides
contact details of researchers from across multiple disciplines who are
experts on social media and internet, debunking of misinformation,
conspiracy theories, lack of trust science communication and science
denial. At the time this item is being added to my list, it has 77
people listed on it.
- Presentations at the Technical Advisory Group meeting on
Communication for Polio Eradication in Nigeria, Niger and Congo, by
UNICEF and ministries of health for different countries, Harare,
- Presentations at the UNICEF Afghanistan polio communication review
meeting in Kabul, September 25 - 27, 2007
- Radio Australia interview with Kym Smithies of the UNDP mission in
- Essays by Etherton, M. , Ganguly, S. (2004) and Marlin-Curiel, S. in
Theatre and Empowerment: Community Drama on the World Stage,
Boon, R. and Plastow, J. (eds.), University of Leeds.
Care Debate Based on Total Lack of Logic", by Jeanna Bryner, LiveScience.com
- "U.S. Team in Baghdad Fights a Persistent Enemy: Rumors" by Thom
Shanker, March 23, 2004, The New York Times
- CNN story, Liberia
tries pop song, billboards to calm census fears, from March 20,
to aid anti-polio campaign in Tribal Areas (in Afghanistan), from
the Daily Times, January 16, 2009
- Informal interviews by the author with various aid workers
- First-hand experience by the author, Jayne
A website that verifies or dispels some of the Internet’s most pervasive
rumors about ANY subject: Emergent.info,
founded by researcher Craig Silverman of Columbia University’s Tow Center
for Digital Journalism. "It presents real rumors and real data about them
in a visual format that hopefully helps communicate how a given claim is
evolving, and whether media reports confirm, deny or merely report the
claim. After enough evidence emerges one way or another, we mark the claim
as either true or false."
Verification Handbook: A
Definitive Guide to Verifying Digital Content for Emergency Coverage
"In a crisis situation, social networks are overloaded with situational
updates, calls for relief, reports of new developments, and rescue
information. Reporting the right information is often critical in shaping
responses from the public and relief workers; it can literally be a matter
of life or death." Authored by journalists from the BBC, Storyful, ABC,
Digital First Media, and other verification experts, this is a resource
for journalists and aid providers that offers tools, techniques, and
step-by-step guidelines for how to deal with user-generated content (UGC)
during emergencies. Noting that rumours and misinformation can cause
people to invent and repeat questionable information in emergency
situations due to uncertainty and anxiety - now amplified due to new
technology like social media - the resource provides best practice advice
on how to verify and use information provided by the crowd, as well as
actionable advice to facilitate disaster preparedness in newsrooms. Case
studies are included; for example: "Separating Rumor From Fact in a
Nigerian Conflict Zone".
Communication Indicators: A Discussion Document, February 2008 from
The Communication Initiative (scroll
down the page to download the document; the summary doesn't really capture
the important points of this document, IMO).
Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking myths, by John Cook and
Stephan Lewandowsky. This is a summary of various research literature,
offering practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the
influence of misinformation. The Handbook will be available as a free,
downloadable PDF at the end of its 6-part blog series (which is still
underway as of November 2011).
Fallacies and the Art of Debate. This is actually a web page for
competitive debaters. But its explanation of logical fallacies is the best
I've found anywhere, and those ways of arguing a point are something
public health educators and other communicators should understand!
WikiWash, a more attractive
interface to the revision history feature of Wikipedia.
News events are often recorded quite quickly in Wikipedia articles, but
these rapid edits can be a source of bias or spin if not scrutinized.
WikiWash allows easy WYSIWIG browsing of recent edits to any article to
make such scrutiny easier.
Psychology: Social and Organizational Approaches
by Nicholas DiFonzo. The contributing authors "investigate how rumours
start and spread, the accuracy of different types of rumour, and how
rumours can be controlled, particularly given their propagation across
media outlets and within organisations." I confess I haven't read this,
but based on what is summarized online, I can't imagine it isn't a good
resource for further exploring this issue.
and Realities: Making Sense of HIV/AIDS Conspiracy Narratives and
Contemporary Legends". By Jacob Heller. American
Journal of Public Health: January 2015, Vol. 105, No. 1, pp.
e43-e50. I confess I haven't read this, as it is behind a pay wall, but
the abstract indicates it is a good resource for further exploring this
Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend (Social Problems and
a book edited by by Chip Heath, Veronique Campion-Vincent, and Gary A.
Fin, includes this chapter: "How Rumor Begets Rumor: Collective Memory,
Ethnic Conflict, and Reproductive Rumors in Cameroon." Again, I confess I
haven't read this, but based on what is summarized online, I can't imagine
it isn't a good resource for further exploring this issue.
plan about recognizing fake news. It's from KQED, a public radio and
TV station in the San Francisco, California area. "Students will analyze
the problems and potential consequences associated with the spread of fake
news." and "Students will identify and evaluate ways to avoid fake news in
social and academic settings. "
have decades of experience fighting “fake news.” Here’s how they win.
Some lessons from the health community’s long battle with misinformation.
Terrific, very practical advice, with examples of where it's worked.
What I'm also wondering: are their any efforts in developing and
transitional countries similar to the myth-busting Straight
Dope column by Cecil Adams in the USA? Or truthorfiction.com?
Or hoax-slayer.com? Or MythBusters?
If you know of such, please contact me.
Even more reading
Wikipedia actually has some good pages that provide an overview of these
and related subjects:
Submit your examples to me
I'm not interested in just urban legends but, specifically misinformation
that interferes with relief or development efforts, or government
initiatives, including after disasters or conflict. And most
especially, I'm interested in ways that such misinformation has been
countered successfully. If you have related information or examples,
please contact me.
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