PACT: Fighting Covid-19 disinformation - Global Impact

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PACT: Fighting Covid-19 disinformation

The May 2020 cover of VoxUkraine's Covid-19 Digest.

Drink a soda to prevent coronavirus.

Wearing a face mask during hot summer days is prohibited.

5G mobile networks increase one’s likelihood of contracting Covid-19.

These are just a few of the many mindboggling pieces of misinformation that pass through the desks of VoxUkraine’s office in any given week.

And as outlandish and even amusing as these false stories may be, their messaging is no laughing matter.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to reap its toll on the health and livelihoods of Ukrainians, an abundance of false stories and headlines pose their own set of serious consequences. Among them is genuine public concern over the government’s ability to track incidences of Covid-19, a lack of verifiable and reliable scientific information on disease symptoms, the likelihood of a second peak, general know-how on proper social distancing practices, the availability of masks and fairly priced health supplies, and steps for protecting vulnerable family members and friends.

But Ukraine’s vibrant civil society is once again up for the task—and on this occasion VoxUkraine has risen to the challenge. The civil society organization is currently on the frontlines of the informational battlefield against Covid-19 disinformation, serving as one of the country’s leading arbiters of truth.

VoxUkraine is a partner in the ENGAGE project. Funded by USAID and implemented by Pact, ENGAGE is working to advance democratic reforms across Ukraine, build demand for fundamental European values, and forge a robust civil society. In addition to providing them funding to carry out their work, ENGAGE helps strengthen the capacity of Ukrainian civil society organizations like VoxUkraine through training, mentorship, coalition building and more.

According to VoxUkraine, most of the false stories circulating via Ukraine’s social media networks and news outlets take the shape of conspiracy theories and disinformation. The organization estimates that about 60 percent of fakes are either directly or indirectly distributed from the Russian media and Russian segments of Facebook and YouTube. Another 20 percent of the stories are thought to originate from China, India and the United States. And another 20 percent come from inside Ukraine.

VoxUkraine is no stranger to a media landscape that is increasingly tested by misleading statements, political spin, special interests and even unequivocal falsehoods. And while VoxUkraine has been accustomed to providing political-economic analysis, it quickly responded to the pandemic earlier this spring once it became clear that the media sphere was not immune from the public health crisis.

As a USAID/ENGAGE partner, VoxUkraine has been combatting misinformation and disinformation for years, a challenge that escalated following acts of Russian aggression in 2014. Indeed, VoxUkraine plays a key role in fostering democratic growth and reform in Ukraine, providing non-partisan analysis for all Ukrainians. It has done so by dissecting political speech and comments into individually fact-checked sentences, equipping Ukrainians with the knowledge needed to discern the trustworthiness of political candidates, to make informed personal decisions at the ballot box and to participate as active citizens at the national and local levels. VoxUkraine has used that same tailored analytical approach since adjusting its work to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even in its efforts to dispel dangerous Covid-19 conspiracy theories, the organization has received its fair share of legal actions, complaints for blocking fake stories on Facebook and even threats. Since the pandemic hit Ukraine in March, the VoxCheck initiative estimates that more than 50,000 Ukrainian citizens have viewed its website to better understand the Covid-19 outbreak, and that via Facebook, each fact-checked Covid story has received approximately 1 million views.

VoxUkraine is not merely dispelling myths; it has also taken an active approach by advocating for healthcare reform and creating a Covid-19 webpage. The page is full of resources, including leading medical reporting from across the world translated into Ukrainian, updates on Ukrainian key policy changes and their impacts on the economy and life of Ukrainians, and the organization’s regular political and economic analysis—all part of a series of Covid-19 digests. The organization’s twelfth Covid-19 Digest was released earlier this summer.

Pact and USAID/ENGAGE supported the VoxUkraine team in its ability to quickly transition into its pandemic operations. During quarantine, online meetups and conferences helped the organization to reflect, share experiences and discuss challenges with civil society partners in navigating movement restrictions and reaching everyday Ukrainians. “It is very important for teams to stay connected,” says Ilona Sologub, VoxUkraine’s chief executive officer.

Just as workers in the fields of healthcare, agriculture, government and utilities have provided essential services during the pandemic, VoxUkraine has proven that civil society is essential for a healthy democracy, a duty that does not diminish during a global pandemic. In the new Covid-19 environment, VoxUkraine’s analysis and reporting will continue to be critical for an informed and healthy Ukraine.

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