After the French government announced stricter confinement measures in response to Covid-19 on Saturday night, a chain of private messages containing unverified information started to spread rapidly. The message is shared in private groups using Whatsapp and Messenger, then relayed on other social media networks via public accounts or private groups. Even though the message slightly varies, the core information is the same: France is going to be totally locked down for 45 days, a curfew is going to be installed, no trains will be running, the army is getting ready to be sent everywhere across the country.
The rapid spread of misinformation in different circles can be explained by several factors:
- It is always coming from apparently “legitimate” and trustworthy sources (“an uncle at the Interior Ministry”, “a friend who works in the army”, “a brother who is a Member of Parliament”). Additionally, it is sometimes relayed by trustworthy and educated people.
- The information has been spread widely across different age categories and social groups. The fact that “everyone knows it” encourages people to trust what is said.
- The information has not clearly been denied or corrected by official sources. The only attempt was an interview of the government’s spokesperson for national radio on Monday morning where she declared the message was “fake news” without giving more details.
- In the face of the context, such measures could be happening. The message matches people’s expectations, reinforcing the belief.
However, even though some bits of information might turn out to be true in the next few days, it has not been officially announced and none of the information is verified. On top of that, several details are added that are not completely true and this contributes to the panic. It also encourages people to make decisions that are not safe or practical in the current situation – such as stockpiling food and supplies. The worry of ‘what could be’ causes social anxiety which results in people leaving areas because of the fear that if they stay, public transport will stop and they will be trapped. It is during these uncertain times that people need advice, official guidance, on what is best to do and how to act – but even then, how can we reduce misinformation?
Here are eight things you can do to try and reduce misinformation:
- Keep your communication clear and factual and try to avoid wording that can be misinterpreted. Do not allow for empty gaps in the information to be filled by rumours.
- Monitor hashtags, key words and accounts who are regularly posting about the situation. In order to respond, you need to know the conversations are happening in the first place.
- Use your official channels to relay the right information. Correct false information if needed.
- If the above is not possible, use your channel to stay in touch with audiences and inform them of incoming official declarations. We call this cadence: updating people regularly, letting them know when the next update will be.
- Choose your channel wisely. Debunking rumours that are spreading online or in group text messages, using an interview of a government spokesperson is not necessarily going to reach everyone who heard the rumours. Think: where are the target audience? What channel/s do we need to use to get this message to them?
- Sometimes trying to debunk a rumours can cause the opposite effect. In that case, it can be better to understand why the rumour developed and fill the gaps in your next communication. If the rumour comes from a lack of information, you might need to be more transparent to avoid misinformation to spread.
- Use or encourage your audience to use tools to verify informations such as Google reverse search, Amnesty’s Youtube Data Viewer, or TinEye
- Rely on (and relay if needed) accounts that specialised in verifying information circulating online.