In the summer months of 2021, India was grappling with multiple challenges on the COVID front – a deadly second wave, misinformation fuelled vaccine hesitancy and limited access to verified information, especially in the remote pockets of India.
The rural communities – who often relied on unverified information that they received either on social media or through word of mouth – were hit hard by this information divide.
This is where The Quint stepped in and started a year-long project to counter mis/disinformation related to COVID-19 and vaccination in the rural parts of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Assam.
The project, with the support of Google News Initiative, started in April 2021 – a time when the country had started witnessing a steady increase in the daily COVID numbers and a deadly second wave was sweeping across rural India.
Our aim was to reach out to the most underserved – the rural women in these states. In order to achieve that we partnered with on-ground organisations – Video Volunteers, Khabar Lahariya, Radio Brahmaputra, and Boat Clinics in Assam.
Sourcing Misinformation and Amplifying Facts Was at the Heart of the Project
Video Volunteers, with its community correspondents (CCs) in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh helped source rumours, falsehoods and misinformation that were circulating within the communities. These were sent to us at The Quint via all digital mediums including an easy to navigate microsite.
Zaheen Singh, who was the project manager for the organisation, worked closely with these correspondents to get us the misinformation from ground up.
"The CCs would share with me any misinformation that they would receive on WhatsApp groups, or anything they would notice in local newspapers. They would even share the rumours that were circulating within the communities through word of mouth, which I would share with The Quint's team."Zaheen Singh, Video Volunteers
The CCs in the three states of UP, MP, and Bihar were a part of over 2,000 WhatsApp groups, as per an estimate quoted by Singh, who also added that the correspondents were in constant touch with Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers, sarpanchs so that they could connect better with the communities.
All these pieces of misinformation were then thoroughly vetted and converted into stories, videos, podcasts, shareable cards by our fact-checking and health teams.
We worked closely with top specialists like virologists, epidemiologists, researchers, doctors, and scientists to debunk many of these rumours. With the help of our partners, we got questions of people from the ground and got the doctors to answer those.
This helped us in bridging the gap and building trust in the minds of the people in rural areas who had limited access to healthcare facilities.
While Video Volunteers helped us source misinformation and distribute fact-checks, our other partner Khabar Lahariya, a rural women-led news publisher, also played a critical role in amplification.
"In rural areas, people connected really well with Janaki Didi's character (an everyday rural woman character created by The Quint for the project). The cards that we shared on WhatsApp worked well for the people once they became a regular feature," says Harshita Verma, who works with Khabar Lahariya and was associated with this project.
Verma added that they received several comments from people on social media who applauded the effort calling it "beneficial".
To be able to connect with the communities, we created characters like – Janaki Didi and Teacher Didi who would debunk misinformation and explain things in a simple yet effective manner.
Rallying a similar viewpoint, Singh added, "We wanted to ensure that people were engaging with the content that was being shared. So we asked our correspondents to talk to people about these rumours and tell them the facts. We printed 'Janaki Didi' posters with information on it and shared those with people," Singh added.
A lot of these stories were also published in the local papers with the help of these correspondents and also aired on local channels.
While primarily the content was produced in Hindi, our partnerships enabled us to translate some of the stories that we did in other local languages like Bhojpuri and Assamese.
Combining Online Effort With Offline Activities
While Khabar Lahariya helped us with online amplification, Video Volunteers and Radio Brahmaputra deployed a two-fold strategy.
Explaining the rationale, Jessica Mayberry, Founding Director at Video Volunteers said that to be able to effectively measure the impact, an offline distribution channel combined with online initiatives played a significant role.
"Some of the offline things that we did were the ‘Jaan Jao’ screenings where we took out auto rickshaws with a loudspeaker to publicise the audio fact-checks. We did live training and interventions with ASHA workers. We went into schools, when vaccination for children became possible."Jessica Mayberry, Video Volunteers
The 'Jaan Jao, Jaan Bachao' campaign was aimed at creating awareness about COVID-19. As per a conservative estimate by the organisation, nearly 43 of their correspondents were able to reach 3,48,400 people in 403 villages with this effort.
Another estimate by the organisation suggests that close to 25 lakh people interacted with at least one piece of content created by The Quint.
Our other partners in Assam – Radio Brahmaputra and Boat Clinics – shared the fact-checks by means of radio broadcast and narrow casting. Our close association with the radio station and the boat clinics ensured that we could reach people living in river islands who had limited access to the information.
Fighting the Odds – Challenges We Faced
We started this project at a time when the cases were soaring and people were scared.
During this phase, it was a daunting task for our on-ground partners to go to local villages and convince people to get vaccinated to fight the virus and take steps to end the pandemic.
"People would not listen to us. We have had instances where women in the age group of 50 and 60 refused to get vaccinated citing 'death' as the reason. They wouldn't listen to us, sometimes they would drive us away. But we kept at it and started using examples from within the community to tell people about the benefits of vaccinations," Singh said.
She added that when they used fact-checks to debunk all these rumours and explained the benefits of vaccination to people, it made the local communities a lot more accepting.
We have also witnessed how some of the most viral rumours like vaccines causing infertility, use of alum, lemon drops, salt, and onion can cure COVID-19, jumped from online platforms to offline conversations.
But overcoming these challenges, in 12 months, we saw a major shift in the people's opinion and stance on vaccination.
Nearly 82 percent of the people, we surveyed between 23 February and 21 March 2022, said that verified and fact-checked information from The Quint and Video Volunteers about the efficacy of the vaccine helped them make the decision to get vaccinated.
This was in sharp contrast with the results of the first survey that showed high level of vaccine hesitancy in these areas.
Even in Assam, we witnessed an uptick in vaccine acceptance and a majority of the surveyed population agreed that the awareness created through the content shared by us played a role.
But the challenges were not limited to the local communities. Mayberry pointed out that relying on ASHA workers for the project was important as they are trusted by the local communities, but training them was a challenge.
"ASHA workers have a lot of potential and the correspondents trained a lot of them. The reason is that we think they are trusted frontline workers and they usually just deliver services, but does anyone look at their communication skills and help them become more powerful communicators who can also combat misinformation? Low level of digital skills was also challenging."Jessica Mayberry, Video Volunteers
With the help of Video Volunteers, we also documented the challenges faced by ASHA workers during the pandemic.
Innovation Helped Us Reach Our Goal
It is often said that misinformation travels way faster than information, many times because of the way it is packaged.
So we had a mammoth task in front of us to make all our content:
For this, we made videos with characters that our audience could relate to, we kept the language simple, we tried to get experts to debunk some of the rumours.
We even created jingles and skits for mass appeal, the messaging was loud and clear – Believe facts, not the rumours.