By Yuly Jara
Disinformation isn’t new—it’s existed since ancient times. But now it’s much easier to spread a hoax than 20 years ago, thanks to the many channels for consuming and sharing information. Not only information has been democratized, but also disinformation.
A combination of factors influence disinformation’s spread: changes in consumption patterns, lack of media literacy, loss of trust in journalism and the lack of business models for digital media each contribute.
Maldita.es is an independent non-profit fact-checking media outlet. One of three inquiries we receive relates to migrants and refugees. The vast amount of disinformation circulating is increasing hate speech towards refugees and migrants and contributes to polarise the public and political debate. The most common migration hoaxes that we find online are the ones where migrants steal jobs from locals, access free health treatments or are involved in criminal activities.
The vast amount of disinformation circulating is increasing hate speech towards refugees and migrants and contributes to polarise the public and political debate.
In spreading misinformation, people use channels like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or WhatsApp, where the public can easily run into pictures, videos and memes spreading fear and fake news.
Anyone can spread manipulated information. It’s not related to any particular ideology or social class.
Sometimes the rationale behind it is simpler than you might think: they believe they are doing the right thing.
Disinformation has become an international phenomena and the strategies behind it are usually the same, as fact-checking organisations like the International Fact- Checking Network has proven. It’s common to see the same hoax repeated in different countries. That’s the case of a widely circulated picture in Spain and Italy of a group of black men believed to be aboard the Open Arms vessel when in reality the photo was taken at a music festival in London years before. A recurrent unfounded rumour circulating in the United States states that undocumented immigrants get Medicare for free.
How coronavirus made it worse
Since the beginning of this outbreak, our Whatsapp service usage has grown more than twofold. We are now currently receiving between 1,000 and 3,000 queries a day, more than three per minute, compared to a total daily average of 250 queries. Almost 50 percent of the hoaxes users report are a text, image or an audio that circulates in a messaging app.
With COVID-19 we have observed that the disinformation topics are shifting as the crisis advances. At the beginning of the crisis, when the virus was only new to China, we observed that disinformation was related to the nationality or race of those affected by COVID-19, mostly targeting the Chinese community.
Today, with the beginning of the month of Ramadan, the focus of disinformation is evolving around the privileges that the Muslim community is allegedly enjoying by not having to comply with the lockdown. The strategies are usually the same: republishing fake old disinformation and sharing decontextualised pictures or videos from other countries.
What’s the solution?
The solution is simple: we need to provide people with facts and verified information so they can make up their own minds. In the fight against disinformation, only if journalists and citizens themselves go hand in hand will we be able to create a safe, healthy, and well informed society. Here are our tips to avoid disinformation.
Don’t ignore the problem. Our narrative is simple, direct and aggressive. We have observed that there are usually two groups of people: Group A — who believes that migration is a good thing — and Group B, who believes it is not.
In between, though, there’s a third group of people who are not positioned towards any of the former. If they are constantly targeted with disinformation they might not be able to differentiate what’s true from what’s not. They are our main target and our methodology ensures that the information we provide them is verifiable.
We need to provide people with facts and verified information so they can make up their own minds.
We employ the same language as hoaxers do in order to fight against algorithms. When a user searches for “young migrants” in the Internet the first result he or she will find is Maldita’s website. We use words such as menas and paguitas, because, even knowing that they contain negative migration-related connotations, those are the terms used by social media hoaxes. Mena is a derogatory word for migrants under 18 years of age who are no longer supported by their families. It is not unusual to find stories accusing them of receiving large government support.
Our project’s name, Maldita Migración, literally means “Damned Migration”. Using this name, we’re able to attract an audience seeking out the negative and then redirect them towards reliable data that debunks their beliefs.
Our evidence shows that new migration narratives and fact-checking tools must go hand in hand if we are to ensure a healthy information ecosystem. This is a tool that needs to be at everyone’s disposal as everyone has the right to verified and reliable information to make better informed decisions.
Yuly Jara of Maldita.es
Yuly Jara is a journalist focused on migration at Maldita.es, an independent non-profit fact-checking media outlet co-founded by Ashoka Fellow Clara Jiménez Cruz and Julio Montez.
A version of this article originally appeared on Hello Europe, an initiative by Ashoka, as part of a series in which entrepreneurs address the COVID-19 pandemic from different migration angles and provide practical policy recommendations. Hello Europe aims to be the collective voice of innovative citizen solutions in the field of migration.