Countering an ‘infodemic’ amid a pandemic

UNICEF and partners respond to COVID-19 misinformation, one hoax at a time.

Jimmy Kruglinski, Communications Officer
Renanda looks at her laptop
UNICEF/2021/Arimacs Wilander
07 May 2021

As COVID-19 cases surged in Indonesia in November, Renanda Putri, 22, received a message on WhatsApp which claimed that drinking boiled garlic water could cure coronavirus. It included a video tutorial and mentioned that a doctor in China had used the remedy to successfully treat their patients. 

The message was forwarded to Renanda by her colleagues at MAFINDO, an organization fighting fake news in Indonesia where she volunteers as an online fact checker. Their team had spotted the hoax being shared on social media and asked her to debunk it. 

Renanda logged onto her laptop at home and began to fact check the claim. A third-year communications student studying media literacy and education, she has seen friends and relatives fall for fake news and worries about the risks during a public health crisis. 

“Once [people] fall for fake news or hoaxes, especially religious and political, it’s not easy to change their minds,” she says. “They might become more intolerant, turn against the truth and science, and may be driven to conflict.” 

Renanda works on a fact checking article
UNICEF/2021/Arimacs Wilander
Renanda works on a fact checking article at her home in Bogor, Indonesia.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, an ‘infodemic’ of false and misleading information has spread alongside the disease. Claims that wearing masks inhibits breathing and that the COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips have been amplified on digital platforms, undermining prevention and vaccination efforts. 

“Since COVID-19 is a new disease, even the experts are still learning about it,” says Rizky Syafitri, UNICEF Communication Specialist. “As a result, many people have struggled to find the most up to date information, giving some individuals the opportunity to benefit by making false claims.” 

In Indonesia, which is among the worst-affected countries in Asia, a nationwide survey conducted in 2020 by the Communications and Information Ministry and Katadata Insight Center (KIC) found that between 64 and 79 percent of respondents could not recognize misinformation online. An overwhelming majority said they primarily seek information through social media. 

The consequences of viral misinformation are not limited to the digital sphere says Rizky. When users encounter online hoaxes that they believe are true, they often share them with others in person, spreading fear, anxiety and false cures beyond social media. 

Rizky Syafitri speaks at a press conference
UNICEF/2021/Arimacs Wilander
Rizky Syafitri speaks at a KPCPEN (The Committee for the COVID-19 Response and National Economic Recovery) press conference in Jakarta held together with Ministry of Health, Indonesia Technical Advisory Group of Immunization (ITAGI) and The Committee for Adverse Events following Immunization. The press conference was held to announce that all the COVID-19 vaccines approved in Indonesia are safe and effective, days after the COVAX AstraZeneca vaccine was suspended due to reports of side effects.

A grassroots effort 

While misinformation has spread virally during the pandemic, the issue of fake news in Indonesia has been around for years says MAFINDO founder Harry Sufehmi. He started the organization in 2015 when hoaxes and calls for violence spiked on social media during the presidential elections a year earlier. At the heart of the issue, he explains, is increasing political polarization, low digital literacy and a decline in quality journalism. 

To eradicate the soaring number of online hoaxes, he began MAFINDO as a crowdsourced fact checking group on Facebook. The organization now has more than 500 volunteers in 19 cities and more than 90.000 online members, including students, housewives, police officers, and farmers who provide fact checking services and digital literacy education for the public. 

When a national emergency was declared in March 2020, UNICEF supported the National Task Force for COVID-19 Response Acceleration (GUGUS TUGAS COVID-19) led by the Indonesian National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB) to develop the country's official website. As part of its support, UNICEF worked with MAFINDO to create a 'Hoaks Busters' section that has produced over 870 articles evaluating online content related to COVID-19 over the past year.  

Hours after receiving the message from her colleagues, Renanda published an article on the COVID-19 website that disproved the boiled garlic water therapy claim. By providing accurate information on COVID-19, Renanda hopes that others will have the skills and knowledge to determine if the information they encounter is reliable or not.  

“People can understand which is fake news or not on the internet through education, specifically media literacy,” she says. “So that's why I want to contribute, to educate people in Indonesia on how to counter the fake news that is spreading everywhere.” 

Screenshot of an article
The article written by Renanda on the website that debunked the boiled garlic water hoax circulating on social media.

Vaccinating against misinformation 

While the Hoaks busting team publishes several articles a day, the rapid pace at which misinformation spreads means that hoaxes often outpace fact checks. According to the Indonesian Ministry of Communication and Information, at least five new hoaxes are identified every day on digital platforms, highlighting the need for more proactive messaging. 

With funding from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UNICEF set up the Inoculation Project to develop a more innovative approach to tackling misinformation. The project includes a digital dashboard that tracks sentiments and mentions of COVID-19-related topics on social media platforms in real-time across the entire country. Tools such as Talkwalker, Google Trends and YouTube Analytics then analyze the data which is presented in a weekly report to guide UNICEF’s communications strategy and is shared with government authorities to inform the national COVID-19 response. 

As Indonesia moves ahead with its COVID-19 vaccination programme, the need for effective public outreach is critical. For the country to achieve its ambitious target of inoculating 181 million people by March 2022, communities must understand the benefits of vaccination and be willing to receive the jabs.

A health worker prepares an injection of the COVAX AstraZeneca vaccine
UNICEF/UN0432398/COVAX/Fauzan Ijazah
A health worker prepares an injection of the COVAX AstraZeneca vaccine at a mass vaccination for religious leaders, teachers and students in East Java. 

As part of its support for the vaccine rollout, UNICEF has been delivering vaccine confidence messaging and warning the public that they will likely receive false information about the vaccine. By taking a pre-emptive approach, says Rizky, people will already have an awareness of misinformation, providing a shield against future hoaxes. UNICEF also worked with the Ministry of Health to share these techniques with over 92,000 vaccinators, which is critical as health workers are considered to be the most trusted source of information related to COVID-19 vaccination. 

The early results of the initiatives are encouraging. A Nielsen survey conducted between March and April 2021 found that vaccine acceptance among Indonesians has increased 20 per cent since the end of 2020. More than half (51 per cent) now say they are willing to get the vaccine. With Indonesia continuing to record new COVID-19 cases daily, any hope for a return to normal depends on the public quickly acting on accurate information that is delivered to them. 

“In previous immunization campaigns, we saw how misinformation can severely impact demand among parents and caregivers,” says Rizky Syafitri. “To bring an end to this pandemic, we need people to understand the importance of vaccination and be willing to get vaccinated.” 

A teacher receives a dose of vaccine
UNICEF/UN0434523/COVAX/Fauzan Ijazah 
A teacher at the Lirboyo Islamic Boarding School in East Java receives a dose of the COVAX AstraZeneca vaccine.