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Five ways to tackle information disorder – learnings from Indonesia

Ankur Garg

Country Director, BBC Media Action Indonesia

The spread of information which is false or misleading – whether by word-of-mouth, media, or otherwise – is an age-old phenomenon. Yet advances in technology and increasing access to traditional and social media are propelling the spread of false information, at a speed and scale not seen before in Indonesia and around the world.

The World Health Organization (WHO) described the overwhelming amount of information around COVID-19 and the confusion about what and who to trust an infodemic. A significant part of the problem has been the proliferation of mis- and disinformation, including claims about the origin and reasons for the spread of the coronavirus, methods of protection from infection and illness, and the development, safety, and efficacy of potential vaccines.

For a country like Indonesia - with one of the fastest growing digital markets and mobile internet accelerations in the world, driven by its growing young population – the spread of information disorder in the context of COVID-19 is particularly stark.

Watch: reaching young audiences in Indonesia to address mis- and disinformation

BBC Media Action has been working with young people across a range of media platforms and formats, as the first line of defence against information disorder related to COVID-19.

This article shares five key lessons for communication practitioners working on this issue:

1. Use a variety of formats including engaging narratives

We know that many young people are fed up with the pandemic. Its constraining impact on their lives over the last year, and the deluge of information about death rates and what precautions to take, has cumulated in disinterest in ‘straight-jacket’ content about COVID-19. Many approaches to tackling information disorder, such as 'inoculation' theory (which holds that people can be made more resistant to false information) or media literacy training, assume that audiences have a rational relationship with information.

But psychological studies show that we don’t – rather, we are attracted to information that engages us emotionally, has a strong narrative, and reinforces our pre-existing beliefs. We believe that it is vital to complement these efforts with content that also reflects the irrational elements of our relationship with information. This is where narrative-based approaches have unique added value. Content creators need to use multiple approaches to (re)engage young people – including narrative-based programmes with an entertainment-first lens, as well as more factual and discussion-based formats.

In Indonesia, we produced a series of short audio dramas, Balada Yayang Bebeb (A Couple’s Tale), modelling a conversation between a young couple quarantining in different locations in the early weeks of the pandemic, which was broadcast on radio, mobile phones, and social media. Through the 10 episodes, we were able to cover key topics related to COVID-19 in an engaging way, while tackling harmful information disorder linked to existing cultural beliefs or myths - for example that eating garlic, taking hot baths, or getting a body massage would cure COVID-19 (they do not). We also created shorter public service announcements (PSAs) about controlling the urge to share unverified information coming from unreliable sources on social media.

Our research showed that more than three-quarters of listeners learned something new from content. Audiences responded favourably to the short narrative format, the accessible language and the situations that portrayed the everyday realities faced by young people during the pandemic.

2. Connect to people’s lived experiences

Reflecting people’s real-life concerns helps to build engagement, whatever the topic. We found that our understanding of the wider impacts of COVID-19, such as impact on livelihoods, or stigmatisation around who is transmitting the virus or vaccination, helped us frame further work in this area. We were able to find new hooks and build engagement for COVID-19 content in general, and for dispelling COVID-19 related mis- and disinformation. People are interested in information that can help them cope with the everyday challenges they face, and are keen to find solutions, even when faced with information overload. So that’s what we provided.

Our TV discussion programme called INFODEMIK – Kita Bahas Sekarang (Let’s discuss now) focused on helping people cope with some of the secondary impacts of the pandemic, and used these topics as gateways to inform, remind and help people to take action and cope during the pandemic. In a survey of over 300 respondents, over 96% of those exposed to our content could name at least two protective behaviours and positive coping strategies for addressing the primary and secondary impacts of COVID-19.

3. Take a multi-platform approach

While some social media platforms are very popular with young audiences, TV and radio continue to be trusted sources of information for many young people, and are certainly still influential for young people’s reference networks (e.g., their parents or community leaders). It is therefore important not to forget about these traditional information sources, when thinking about how to engage with young people in their decision-making pathways and information ecosystems. Our social media brand, AksiKita Indonesia (We act), engages young people through Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook; we also reach and engage a wider spectrum of audience groups through our work on TV, radio, and voice-based mobile phone services.

4. Partnerships are critical

There is only so much public health content any one individual or organisation can make and share. Ensuring scale and sustainability beyond a few stories and episodes requires building meaningful partnerships with, and strengthening the capacity of, national and regional media organisations and social media influencers to co-produce and disseminate public health information. In our COVID-19 response, we co-produced most of our mass media content with local public service and private broadcast partners.

Through our partnership with the Press Council of Indonesia, we have worked with over 3,000 journalists across the country over the last six months, strengthening their understanding of and exposure to trusted information on COVID-19, secondary impacts and vaccines. Our series of 10 training webinars received an average rating from participants of 4.4 out of 5 for relevance, interest, and engagement.

5. Put audience voices first

Underpinning all of the points above is the need to put audience’s voices first. The voices, concerns and needs of the diverse range of people affected by the pandemic are still under-represented in media coverage, and there is too much ‘one-way’ communication. We must strive to support more interactive content, enabling two-way communication between those affected and those trying to respond, for example by using rapid audience feedback to inform content, and building audience stories and voices into everything we create. This is a core value of the BBC – putting audiences at the heart of everything we do. And I think that is central in designing and delivering an impactful response to information disorder.

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Ankur Garg is Country Director for BBC Media Action Indonesia. This blog is based on his presentation at the spring 2021 virtual conference  'Trust in News: The view from the frontline fighting disinformation', hosted by the BBC as a partner in the Trusted News Initiative (TNI), a media industry collaboration working to rapidly identify and stop the spread of harmful disinformation.

The projects in this blog are supported by the British Embassy in Jakarta, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Global Affairs Canada and the H2H network. 

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