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Fact Checkers and Women’s Rights Activists Team Up to Fight Covid-19 Misinformation in Zimbabwe’s Marginalized Rural Communities

Network booster tower in Zimbabwe. Source: Wiki Commons

by John Masuku

When soaring Covid -19 cases and deaths stopped the world in 2020, myths and false information about the new coronavirus spread equally fast in Zimbabwe. To counter misinformation two Zimbabwean media organizations, one focusing on the representation of women in the media and one fact checking group, quickly hatched a collaborative effort to ensure that traditionally marginalized communities in remote parts of the country get correct facts and information about the looming, often misunderstood pandemic.

For Gender and Media Connect (GMC) , whose role is to empower women with media literacy skills, the “infodemic” was a huge challenge which needed immediate solutions. The organization noticed that women were not adequately equipped to engage safely with the media, especially with social media, during the ‘new normal’ dictated by the Covid-19 epidemic.

After conducting a baseline survey to determine the magnitude of information deficit among women in rural areas GMC brought in ZimFact, a respected and active fact checking organization established in 2018, to help them tackle fake news head on.

“Unfortunately, some of the miscommunication which was magnified on social media came from the media itself, since this was a new area of health reporting with journalists still ill equipped and ignorant about the pandemic. With community elders, relatives, village criers and influencers being the main sources of information, for a long time they gave the impression that Covid-19 did not exist but was a rich people’s disease, since most deaths were reported among influential national figures like politicians and businesspersons “ said GMC director Abigail Gamanya.

Both ZimFact and GMC were working on projects grounded by strict lockdown measures restricting freedom of movement, so they realized that digital collaboration was the way if they wanted to achieve any impact in difficult to access places and audiences.

“We recognized the work of well networked GMC in assisting women to develop their own communities through raising issues of concern through the media. So, we envisaged reaching out to audiences together using our combined expertise” explained Cris Chinaka Editor-in-Chief of ZimFact.

First, stories about coronavirus which had suggested that the warm climate would keep the virus away or that African populations would be immune to the disease were easily believable and shared quite extensively on the continent. Zimbabweans also embraced and shared these stories, delivering them to marginalized rural communities as well. Later, as the virus was spreading, a wave of alternative cures started circulating online.

But as the first wave of the virus slowed down, a new wave of false stories started taking a more political turn and the social sphere becoming more polarized. Repeatedly, the ruling Zanu (PF) party and opposition MDC parties used the coronavirus as an opportunity to garner support for themselves or to discredit the other side for the poor management of the crisis.

“Most often the elite is benefiting from mis- and disinformation. The government is using disinformation to paint itself in a good light and portray itself as handling the Covid-19 pandemic in an exemplary manner which should be commended by citizens. On the other hand, politicians from the opposition parties also use false stories to try and discredit the work the Government is doing,” observed Lifaqane Nare, a journalist and fact checker, in an interview for International Media Support (IMS).

At the beginning of their collaboration GMC and ZimFact had to ask critical questions regarding the way women in rural areas were getting their information, how were they verifying it, how were they relating to it and how were they communicating with each about. Focusing on women was essential and motivated by evidence that women have marginal access to reliable information, and thus are more vulnerable to mis/disinformation .

Lack of access to credible information about the pandemic, proper prevention measures, enhanced by the fact that local languages were rarely used by influencers and the media, were issues that needed urgent correction.

“The language used by various authorities, like health and information ministries and even the media itself, to communicate vital information about Covid-19 to communities was largely not domesticated according to regions and cultures for particular types of audiences and did not even cascade to the targeted groups who speak minority languages. There were blanket posters and news content all over, not tailor made for special audiences.” explained Gamanya.

As GMC and ZimFact embarked on their joint efforts to fight misinformation they also recognized that places where many minority languages are spoken in remote, marginalized parts of the country were going to be more vulnerable. Due to the country’s colonial past, which still influences its present, many minority languages are still overshadowed by mainly Shona, Ndebele and to some extent English, which were the only ones recognized as national languages until a decade ago. Then the constitution was changed to include 16 languages, but many minority languages are still ostracized and underrepresented in the national media.

Many fact checkers, like those in traditional newsrooms ordinarily decide how to tackle news in a hierarchical manner. Usually a story filed to the newsroom goes through senior editors before publication, but according to Chinaka, the GMC-ZimFact collaboration approached things differently.

“We thought, let’s turn things around and go to those communities and ask: what issues would you like us to cover around, say Covid-19? What are you reading, what gaps are you finding? It is almost like crowd sourcing information from communities which are normally force fed by media houses. With almost everyone already possessing a smartphone for daily information sharing, our empowerment task was simplified.”

GMC staff and coordinators go out into communities, or digitally interact with them, via WhatsApp and SMS to comply with strict lockdown rules and if there are authenticity issues identified they are taken to ZimFact for expert evaluation. Some politicians might boast in the media about projects which are nonexistent or visible on the ground, but now citizens are able to make challenges. Gamanya believes that increasing the capacity of grassroots information gatherers is key.

“We conduct online training (…) with the community-based organizations and ZimFact takes them through fact checking skills. We recently held a workshop for influencers that included chiefs, pastors, nurses, teachers — among others — where they were reminded that their word carries a lot of influence in information regarding Covid-19’s spreading and prevention. The approach is not to talk down to them but listen to how they interacted with communities on WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms including challenges they faced. Thereafter, ZimFact comes and instils media related gathering and fact checking procedures and guidance.”

The guiding principle of the GMC- ZimFact collaboration is to have the majority of forgotten, underdeveloped communities receive basic information and fact checking skill and owning all processes used towards fighting Covid-19 and other types of misinformation.

“We are happy that duty bearers are now fully awake because with this kind of robust digital newsgathering and fact checking empowerment, citizens can no longer be lied to about non-existent interventions or development projects since they can quickly cross check and share the actual reality on the ground, thus naming and shaming liars and non-performers” concluded Gamanya.

The GMC-ZimFact cooperation in fact-checking information among grassroots communities is proving to be a powerful transparency and accountability tool, which should be broadened to cover the whole of Zimbabwe. Many current national leaders have risen to top positions by exaggerating their roles in national development particularly their remote areas of origin. The fact that communities can now immediately respond to their self praises in the media by confirming or disputing so-called successes or achievements through digital media will go a long way in eliminating dishonest leaders, misinformation and outright lies thus spearheading meaningful progress in underdeveloped districts.

John Masuku is a Zimbabwe-based broadcast journalist/media trainer and Executive Director of Radio Voice of the People (VOP). He is a fellow of the CEU Democracy Institute’s Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) in Budapest, Hungary. John can be contacted at jjwpmasuku55@gmail.com or via Twitter at @john_masuku.

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Research center for the study of media, communication, and information policy and its impact on society and practice. https://cmds.ceu.edu/