Tag Archives: public health

Lessons for aid & development are everywhere – including on a TV comedy

I find lessons for aid and humanitarian work, including public health education, all around me, if I’m paying attention.

That includes watching the Andy Griffith Show, a 1960s television show that is still frequently shown in the USA. For my international readers: the show, mostly a comedy but sometimes dramatic, follows the adventures of a small town Southern sheriff and his family. It’s a highly sentimental, idealized show more about how people wish small town life was in the USA than it actually ever was. But I’m very fond of it because it shows the very real sweetness and eccentricities of small town anywhere, not just the USA, even if it’s highly romanticized and leaves out important facts of life in the Southern USA, like Jim Crow and the oppression of black Americans.

I recently saw one of the few episodes I don’t recall seeing when I was a kid. It’s called The County Nurse. The official summary: “Andy is forced to exert all his persuasiveness to get a farmer to take a tetanus shot.”

The premise is this: there is a county nurse – a government-funded health worker – that is visiting the town of Mayberry as a part of her job. The nurse has promised her bosses that she will have a 100% success rate in inoculations, but the person standing in her way on delivering on this promise is farmer Rafe Hollister, who has never had a tetanus shot. Rafe says he has never been sick and has never had to see a doctor and, therefore, doesn’t need this shot. In fact, he’s quite skeptical about vaccines in general. Sheriff Andy wants to help because he does believe in vaccines and because he is attracted to the new, and very pretty, county nurse and wants to help her out. At one point, Andy says to Rafe “go ahead and try the stethoscope. You can hear your heart beating!” And Rafe replies “I don’t need that to know if my hearts beating, I’m alive ain’t I? Then my hearts beating.” Rafe also says, “I ain’t never been to a doctor in my life. When I was born, I had my mama. When I die, I’ll have the undertaker. I don’t see no sense in clutterin’ up things in between.”

Andy offers the nurse advice at one point: “With a fellow like Rafe, you don’t just walk up and say ‘let me give you a tetanus shot.’ You hafta kinda make him trust ya first. Gain his confidence. Well ya sneak up on him is whatcha ya do.” And that’s just what they do: Andy finally uses his singing and storytelling ability to shock Rafe into taking his shot. Andy sings a sad song,”Dig my grave with a silver spade,” and talks about what Rafe’s funeral will be like if he dies from tetanus. Rafe relents at last.

It’s an episode where city sensibilities and country ways clash. The wariness of the country folk towards doctors and formal medicine is stressed – and not for the first time in this show. The only thing missing from this episode to make it more realistic would have been Rafe repeating crazy beliefs about vaccines.

You can find pirated versions of this episode online relatively easily. It’s less than 30 minutes long.

Sadly, I don’t think we have county nurses anymore…

Also see:

How to change minds

I’m a part of the March for Science Facebook group, for people that were in the Marches for Science all across the USA on April 2017 or that supported such. A lot of the talk on the group has been about science education and public relations. There are individuals and communities all over the USA – and the world – fighting against science-based decision making in public policies and science education in schools, and many on the group feel this is because of poor wording and poor outreach by scientists and those that support science regarding public relations. In my ongoing quest to be a better communicator, I’ve watched these discussions closely.

Recently, someone posted the following regarding how we communicate about science. I think it’s a great testimony regarding what works, and what doesn’t, regarding swaying public opinion, changing people’s minds and fighting misinformation. I’m sharing it here, with her permission, but without her name to protect her identity:

I’m not a scientist. I’m not afraid of science but I also don’t have a strong grasp of most science related jargon. I joined this group along with a few other science groups/pages as I heard more and more of anti-science rhetoric from our govt. Allthough I don’t understand a lot of scientific things that doesn’t mean I don’t realize the importance of science for our society and for our future.

I have learned SO MUCH from reading posts and comments. The reason I have learned so much? The reason I am no longer “afraid” of GMO’s? The reason I have changed my mind on other popular misconceptions? Because my fear was never the science. My fear was that I didn’t know what information to trust. Money talks. It’s hard to figure out who is paying. Do I trust a science study that was paid for by a big corporation? Do I trust a study that’s published but not peer reviewed? WHO do you trust?

The common thread I’ve found as I read posts and comments in order to learn more is how stupid I am. How dumb was I to not trust GMO’s. People’s comments were blatantly MEAN. And sure, I was completely uneducated about GMO’s. I read the wrong information. I trusted the wrong sources. But again, without hours of research to find out funding sources, etc HOW do I know what to trust?

This question was amazing. I always want to learn more. I want to understand about so many things – to give my kids the best future possible. The best food to eat. The best meds for my asthmatic child. The best environment for them to grow up in, etc. But here’s the thing. If I wasn’t determined to do the best for my kids . . . by the 100th ridiculing comment on a post I found interesting I would have stopped following and learning. Heck by the 20th I would have written off these sciences pages.

Even in this thread there are those using terms like “stupid,” “brainwashing,” etc. Very derogatory terms and grouping all people who don’t have a knack for science into one realm. I have a great head for business, finances and can analyze the heck out of any non-technical literature. I don’t make fun or ridicule those people who don’t have have that ability. It accomplishes nothing.

So thank you to those of you who answered this post thoughtfully. I’m certain there are many of you who diligently try over and over again to get your point across. Don’t give up. Changing peoples’ minds is never easy but in this case it’s worth the fight.

—end quoted text—

Also see:

Behavioural Insights at the United Nations – Achieving the 2030 Agenda

The United Nations has embraced the use of behavioral science to help it craft effective development activities and interventions. As it notes on this November 2016 blog:

Across the globe, all people – poor or rich – sometimes make choices that are not conducive to their own well-being. Saving enough for retirement, eating healthy, investing in education – all too often we humans postpone intended actions to ‘tomorrow’, succumb to inertia or get stuck in habits.

In light of the extensive research on the cognitive biases that influence human decision-making, there is a broad consensus that traditional economic models are insufficient for effective policy-making. Behind every policy lie assumptions about how humans will behave in light of new regulations and why we act the way we do.

UNDP has embraced the idea of network nudges, where people are influenced by the behavior of friends and members of their extended social network, and that people observe other people’s behavior as guidelines for what’s acceptable and desirable. UNDP has been cooperating with the UK Behavioural Insights Team since 2013, and UNDP’s report, Behavioural Insights at the United Nations – Achieving the 2030 Agenda, advocates this approach for inclusion in every policy maker’s toolbox and presents 10 valuable case studies. This is from the page at the aforementioned link:

In 2016, the UNDP Innovation Facility collaborated with the newly engaged UN Behavioural Science Advisor to work on behaviorally-informed design with 8 UNDP Country Offices in all 5 regions: Bangladesh, Cameroon, China, Ecuador, Jordan, Moldova, Montenegro and Papua New Guinea. This Progress Report highlights the potential of behavioural insights to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and provides an overview of the 8 initiatives.

Behavioural insights draw from research findings from psychology, economics and neuroscience. These insights about how people make decisions matter for development. They matter for policy-formulation and addressing last mile problems.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted that, “In order to succeed, Agenda 2030 must account for behavioural insights research… Our organization, our global agenda – and most importantly the people worldwide they are intended to serve – deserve nothing less than the best science available. A human-centered agenda requires a rigorous, research-based understanding of people.”

The report shows that approaching development challenges with behavioural insights leads to better diagnoses of problems and to better designed solutions. Public policy and programme officials around the world can achieve better outcomes — often at low or no cost — simply by leveraging our current understanding of human psychology and behaviour.

In January 2016, the UN Secretary-General appointed two “Behavioural Insights Advisors” for initially six months. They worked with the UNDP Innovation Facility to improve uptake of an e-waste recycling solution in China, crowdfunding efforts for green energy in Ecuador, the anti-corruption initiative ‘Phones Against Corruption’ in Papua New-Guinea, and more.

Wikipedia actually has some good pages that provide an overview of these and related subjects:

And here are some of my own resources on these and related subjects:

Folklore, Rumors & Misinformation Campaigns Interfering with Humanitarian Efforts & Government Initiatives

gossipUPDATED:

Preventing Folklore, Rumors, Urban Myths & Organized Misinformation Campaigns From Interfering with Development & Aid/Relief Efforts & Government Initiatives

Folklore, rumors and contemporary myths / legends often interfere with development aid activities and government initiatives, including public health programs – even bringing such to a grinding halt. They create ongoing misunderstandings and mistrust, prevent people from seeking help, encourage people to engage in unhealthy and even dangerous practices, and have even lead to mobs of people attacking someone or others because of something they heard from a friend of a friend of a friend. With social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as simple text messaging among cell phones, spreading misinformation is easier than ever.

Added to the mix: fake news sites set up specifically to mislead people, as well as crowdsourced efforts by professional online provocateurs and automated troll bots pumping out thousands of comments, countering misinformation efforts has to be a priority for aid and development organizations, as well as government agencies.

Since 2004, I have been gathering and sharing both examples of this phenomena, and recommendations on preventing folklore, rumors and urban myths from interfering with development and aid/relief efforts and government initiatives. I’ve recently updated this information with new information regarding countering organized misinformation campaigns.

Anyone working in development or relief efforts, or working in government organizations, needs to be aware of the power of rumor and myth-sharing, and be prepared to prevent and to counter such. This page is an effort to help those workers:

  • cultivate trust in the community through communications, thereby creating an environment less susceptible to rumor-baiting
  • quickly identify rumors and misinformation campaigns that have the potential to derail humanitarian aid and development efforts
  • quickly respond to rumors and misinformation campaigns that could derail or are interfering with humanitarian aid and development efforts

And, FYI: I do this entirely on my own, as a volunteer, with no funding from anyone. I update the information as my free time allows.

Also see:

fake news, folklore & friendships

gossipIt wasn’t getting a journalism degree, or being a journalist, that made me a skeptic when it comes to sensational stories. It was a folklore class. Urban Folklore 371, to be exact. It was a very popular class at Western Kentucky University back in the late 1980s, both for people getting a degree in folklore studies and for people needing humanities courses for whatever their degree program was, like me. Class studies focused on contemporary, largely non-religious-based legends, customs and beliefs in the USA. One class might focus on watching a film about the games kids play on a playground and how those games explore the things they fear – marriage, childbirth, stranger danger, being ostracized by their peers, etc. Another class might review the difference versions of the “vanishing hitchhiker” story and why such stories are so popular in so many different cultures, and how the story changes over time.

I heard at least one student say, “That’s not a true story?! I always thought it was!” at least once in every class. Because of that class, I realized there were legends being told as truth all around me, by friends, by family, even by newspapers. “I heard it from my cousin” or “My friend saw it in a newspaper” or “My Mom saw it on Oprah” was usually the preface to some outlandish story told as fact. But the class taught me that, in fact, no woman was ever killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo, that there has never been a killer with a hook for a hand that attacked a couple in a parked car in a nearby town, that there is no actor who has never had a gerbil removed from his anus, and on and on and on.

I became the “um – that’s not true” girl at various places where I worked. And then via email. And I still am, now on social media. And what I have learned from being little Ms. Debunker is that people REALLY do NOT like these stories debunked. In fact, pointing out the facts that prove these stories aren’t true, no matter how gently I try to do it, often makes people very angry.

Back in the 1990s, a friend sent me yet another forwarded email. This time, the text said the email was from Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, that he’d written a program that would trace everyone to whom the email message was sent, and that he was beta testing the program. The email encouraged people to forward the message and said that if it reaches 1,000 people, everyone on the list would receive $1,000. Of course, it wasn’t true – I knew it as soon as I saw it. She’d sent me several of these type of emails – one that said people that forwarded the message would get a free trip to Disney World, another said we’d all get free computers, and on and on. I had been deleting them, but I was tired of it. So I looked online, found a site that debunked the myth, and sent her the link. I didn’t make any judgement statements; I just said, “This is a myth. Here’s more info. You might want to let everyone know you sent to, as well as the person you got it from,” or something similar.

She was not happy with me. In fact, it almost ended our friendship. She told me that the Internet was “a place for having fun” and “you can’t win if you don’t play” and what did she have to lose by forwarding the message even if it sounded fishy?

And that kind of reaction kept happening. Three new friends I made back in 2010, after I’d moved back to the USA, all unfriended me on Facebook the same day, outraged that I pointed out several things they were posting as their status updates – about how Facebook was going to start charging users, about how putting up a disclaimer on your Facebook page would stop the company from being able to sell your information, and on and on – were all urban legends, all untrue. Their reaction was almost verbatim of what that friend via email had said: Facebook is “a place for having fun” and “it’s better to be safe and share it” and what did they have to lose by sharing the message even if it sounded fishy? Also, they said they did not have time to “check every single thing online.”

Now, in 2016, I have friends that are furious with me for posting science-based web sites that debunk their posts from quack sites like the “Food Babe” claiming that GMOs cause cancer or that vaccines cause autism (to be clear, these are MYTHS). Two journalists – JOURNALISTS – were mad at me when I pointed out that a status update one had shared – it urged users to use the Facebook check-in function to say they were at Standing Rock in North Dakota, that this would somehow prevent the Morton County Sheriff’s Department there from geotargeting DAPL protesters – was promoting false information. I wasn’t just annoyed by the message – I found it imprudent, and yet another example of slackervism or slacktivism: people truly wishing to assist the protesters were checking in on Facebook rather than doing something that would REALLY make a difference, like sending funds to support the protest efforts or writing their Congressional representatives in support of the protesters. It also misdirects people from the nefarious ways law enforcement really does surveil people on social media. I would have thought journalists would know better than engage in such behavior.

Contemporary legends online cause harm, and it’s bothered me long before the Standing Rock/Facebook book check-in myth. Since 2004, I have been gathering and sharing examples of how rumors and urban / contemporary myths often interfere with relief and development activities, and government initiatives, including public health initiatives — even bringing such to a grinding halt. These myths create ongoing misunderstandings among communities and cultures, prevent people from seeking help, encourage people to engage in unhealthy and even dangerous practices, cultivate mistrust of people and institutions, and have even lead to mobs of people attacking someone or others for no reason other than something they heard from a friend of a friend of a friend. With the advent of social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as just text messaging among cell phones, spreading misinformation is easier than ever.

Based on my experience as a researcher and a communications practitioner, and everything I’ve read – and I read a LOT on this subject – rumors that interfere with development and aid/relief efforts and government health initiatives come from:

  • misinterpretations of what a person or community is seeing, hearing or experiencing,
  • from previous community experiences or their cultural beliefs,
  • willful misrepresentation by people who, for whatever reason, want to derail a development or relief activity,
  • unintentional but inappropriate or hard-to-understand words or actions by a communicator, or
  • the desire of an individual or community to believe an alternative narrative, a desire that is stronger than the facts

That list of bullet points was central to the long list I made of recommendations on preventing folklore, rumors and urban myths from interfering with such initiatives. I made that list to help aid workers, particularly people leading public health initiatives. For years, I’ve updated that list and felt really good about it being comprehensive and realistic, and I’ve employed some of the methods myself in my work.

But are these recommendations enough anymore? I’m not sure. Because BuzzFeed reported that fake news stories about the USA Presidential election this year generated more engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major news outlets COMBINED – that included major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and NBC News, and on and on. And a new study from Stanford researchers evaluated students’ ability to assess information sources, and described the results as “dismaying,” “bleak” and a “threat to democracy,” as reported by NPR News. Researchers said students displayed a “stunning and dismaying consistency” in their responses, getting duped again and again. The researchers weren’t looking for high-level analysis of data but just a “reasonable bar” of, for instance, telling fake accounts from real ones, activist groups from neutral sources and ads from articles. And the students failed. Miserably. And then there’s my own experience seeing the reaction a lot of people have to references to sites like snopes.com or truthorfiction.com or hoax-slayer.com or the Pulitzer Prize-winning site Politico that debunk myths; those people claim that “These sites aren’t true. They’re biased.” And that’s that – just a simple dismissal, so they can continue to cling to falsehoods.

National Public Radio did a story a few days ago about a man in Los Angeles who decided to build fake news sites that publish outrageous, blatantly false stories that promote stories that extreme far-right groups in the USA (also known as “alt-right”) would love to believe; he thought that when these stories were picked up by white supremacist web sites and promoted as true, he and others, particularly major media outlets, would be able to point out that the stories were entirely fiction, created only as bait, and that the white supremacists were promoting such as fact. But instead, thousands of people with no formal association with white supremacists groups shared these stories as fact – reaching millions more people. He wrote one fake story for one of his fake sites on how customers in Colorado marijuana shops were using food stamps to buy pot. Again, this story is NOT TRUE. But it led to a state representative in Colorado proposing actual legislation to prevent people from using their food stamps to buy marijuana; a state legislator was creating legislation and outrage based on something that had never happened.

BTW, to see these fake news sites for yourself, just go to Google and search for snopes is biased, and you will get a long list of links to fake news sites, most right-wing, all fighting against debunking fact-based sites like Snopes. I refuse to name those fake news sites because I don’t want them to get any more traffic than they already do.

Competent decision-making depends on people – the decision-makers – having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful and appropriate context. Reason – the power of the mind to think, understand and form judgments by a process of logic – relies on being able to evaluate information regarding credibility and truth. But fact-based decision-making, the idea of being logical and using reason and intellect, have become things to eschew. The Modis Operandi for many is go with your gut, not with the facts. Go not for truth, but truthiness.

I always thought that last bullet in my list of why people believe myths, “the desire of an individual or community to believe an alternative narrative, a desire that is stronger than the facts,” was easy to address. Now, given all the aforementioned, I’m not at all sure.

I’m going to keep calling out myths whenever I see them, and if it costs me Facebook friends, so be it. I prefer the truth, even when the truth hurts, even when the truth causes me to have to reconsider an opinion. There is a growing lack of media literacy and science literacy in the USA – and, indeed, the world. And the consequences of this could be catastrophic – if they haven’t been already. People need to be able to not just access information, but also to analyze it and evaluate the source. That’s just not happening. And I’ve no idea how to change things.

Also see:

8:10 am Nov. 28, 2016 Update: Filippo Menczer, Professor of Computer Science and Informatics and Director of the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana University, Bloomington, authored the article Why Fake News Is So Incredibly Effective, published in Time and The Conversation. Excerpts: “Our lab got a personal lesson in this when our own research project became the subject of a vicious misinformation campaign in the run-up to the 2014 U.S. midterm elections. When we investigated what was happening, we found fake news stories about our research being predominantly shared by Twitter users within one partisan echo chamber, a large and homogeneous community of politically active users. These people were quick to retweet and impervious to debunking information.” Also of note: “We developed the BotOrNot tool to detect social bots. It’s not perfect, but accurate enough to uncover persuasion campaigns in the Brexit and antivax movements… our lab is building a platform called Hoaxy to track and visualize the spread of unverified claims and corresponding fact-checking on social media. That will give us real-world data, with which we can inform our simulated social networks. Then we can test possible approaches to fighting fake news.”

1:05 pm Nov. 29, 2016 Updates:

Donald Trump and the Rise of Alt-Reality Media: You think the truth took a hit last year? It’s about to get worse. A lot worse. from Politico.

For Some, Scientists Aren’t The Authority On Science from NPR

Dec. 3, 2016 Updates:

Spread of Fake News Provokes Anxiety in Italy from The New York Times

Dec. 6, 2016 Updates:

A North Carolina man read online that a pizza restaurant in northwest Washington, DC, was harboring young children as sex slaves as part of a child-abuse ring, so he drove six hours from his home to the restaurant, and not long after arriving, he fired from an assault-like AR-15 rifle. No one was injured, and he’s been arrested, but, as The New York Times notes,  “the shooting underscores the stubborn lasting power of fake news and how hard it is to stamp out. Debunking false news articles can sometimes stoke the outrage of the believers, leading fake news purveyors to feed that appetite with more misinformation. Efforts by social media companies to control the spread of these stories are limited, and shutting one online discussion thread down simply pushes the fake news creators to move to another space online. The articles were exposed as false by publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the fact-checking website Snopes. But the debunking did not squash the conspiracy theories about the pizzeria — instead, it led to the opposite. ‘The reason why it’s so hard to stop fake news is that the facts don’t change people’s minds,’ said Leslie Harris, a former president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit that promotes free speech and open internet policies.”

Dec. 9, 2016 update

“Fakes, News and the Election: A New Taxonomy for the Study of Misleading Information within the Hybrid Media System”

Giglietto, Fabio and Iannelli, Laura and Rossi, Luca and Valeriani, Augusto

November 30, 2016. Convegno AssoComPol 2016 (Urbino, 15-17 Dicembre 2016), Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2878774

Abstract:
The widely unexpected outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election prompted a broad debate on the role played by “fake-news” circulating on social media during political campaigns. Despite a relatively vast amount of existing literature on the topic, a general lack of conceptual coherence and a rapidly changing news eco-system hinder the development of effective strategies to tackle the issue. Leveraging on four strands of research in the existing scholarship, the paper introduces a radically new model aimed at describing the process through which misleading information spreads within the hybrid media system in the post-truth era. The application of the model results in four different typologies of propagations. These typologies are used to describe real cases of misleading information from the 2016 US Presidential election. The paper discusses the contribution and implication of the model in tackling the issue of misleading information on a theoretical, empirical, and practical level.

Also see: Feuds in the nonprofit/NGO/charity world

Mobile Phones & Public Health – online course, March 28-April 22

Reminder: use the code “liberation” to get $295 course price.

TC309: mHealth – Mobile Phones for Public Health

March 28th-April 22nd 2016
 
Course Description

In 2016, the number of global mobile subscriptions will reach 8.5 billion — more than the number of people on this earth, and it took a little more than 20 years for that to happen. Yet at the same time, health systems around the world are struggling to:

  • Provide access to affordable healthcare for all
  • Treat infectious diseases such as Ebola, HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis
  • Address crippling maternal and child mortality rates in low-income countries
  • Manage non-communicable diseases like heart disease, cancer, and Diabetes
  • Tackle infrastructure and supply chain challenges in remote settings
  • Train frontline health workers to provide care to vulnerable populations

Increasingly, Ministries of Health, companies, NGOs, and various bilateral and multilateral donors are looking to mobile phones as part of a solution for responding to these challenges.

This four-week, online certificate course will focus on building mHealth skills that revolutionize approaches to patient care and management, point-of-care support, health education, remote monitoring, diagnostics, supply chain management & logistics and more.

A growing number of mHealth projects have been implemented across the world from Guatemala to Uganda, from India to Argentina – we will explore what has worked and what could be improved with each example, and invite participants to share their own experiences in managing ongoing projects.

Apply Now: https://www.techchange.org/online-courses/mhealth-mobile-phones-for-public-health/

Course Topics and Featured Tech
Week 1: Introduction to Mobile Phones for Public Health
Week 2: Strengthening Health Systems
Week 3: Citizen-Centered Health
Week 4: The Future of mHealth

Course Objectives

At the conclusion of the course, participants will be able to:

  • critically analyze both the opportunities and the pitfalls that emerge when working with mobile technology to improve public health outcomes
  • connect relevant development theories to the technological strategies and tools discussed in the course
  • manage specific mHealth software platforms and tools
  • design dynamic and effective strategies for using tools and platforms to improve mHealth efforts
  • become more confident using mobile technology to address public health challenges

Course Methodology

  • This course is delivered entirely online over a period of four weeks.
  • This course features several live interactive guest expert sessions each week with leading practitioners, software developers, academics, and donors.
  • Every live event is recorded and archived for you to watch later.
  • This course also features a unique hands-on learning environment with animated videos, technology demos, practical activities, networking events, office hours, participant presentations, immersive simulations, and more.
  • TechChange recommends budgeting a minimum commitment of 5-7 hours per week and scheduling time for the course around your existing obligations.
  • Participants will have access to all course content for at least 4 months after course completion so the material can be completed and revisited later.

Course Price

  • $295 if you use the discount code: “liberation”
  • $495 if application and payment is submitted by course start date
  • Group discount rates available. For more details, please contact us social@techchange.org.

UN, NGO efforts to counter hate

UNLogoOn December 2, 2015, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) held a Symposium on Hate Speech in the Media, with senior officials calling for a global mobilization of citizens to help counter messages that promote xenophobia, violent extremism and prejudice. The symposium was the first of a series that UNAOC will host, called Tracking Hatred,. The next symposium will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, in April.

The UN Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) also organized two days of panel discussions later in December, a collaboration between the public and private sector, called “Preventing Terrorists from Exploiting the Internet and Social Media to Recruit Terrorists and Incite Terrorist Acts, While Respecting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.”

@unaoc, @friendsunaoc, @UN-CTED and other agencies, UN and non-UN alike, are using #SpreadNoHate and #Reclaimingtheweb on Twitter to promote messages from these efforts. I’ll be using them as well, as appropriate, often.

Cristina Gallach, UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications & Public Information, said during the UNAOC event, “Hate speech has been with us for a long time. We will never forget the slaughter of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during a brief three month period in Rwanda in 1994. We will never forget either the six million Jews plus five million others who perished because of one hateful vision… Today, however, more than ever, individuals are using hate speech to foment clashes between civilizations in the name of religion. Their goal is to radicalize young boys and girls, to get them to see the world in black and white, good versus evil, and get them to embrace a path of violence as the only way forward.” She wasn’t just referring to Daesh (also known as ISIL or ISIS), though they are the most high-profile right now and, therefore, they were the primary focus of this event.

From what I’ve read about the symposium, there were lots of comments by speakers about enforcing laws that prohibit incitement of hatred or violence, and about social media companies being compelled to quickly delete content. I’m wary of this kind of talk, as governments use cries of “hate speech” to arrest people that are critical of the government or a religion, such as this 14-year-old boy in Turkey, or these teens in Egypt, or Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia. I much prefer strategies focused on communications activities that establish and promote a narrative that pushes back against hate and prejudice, and was glad to see that strategy as a focus of two of the CTED panels, one called “privacy and freedom of expression in the digital age” and another that I am very interested in, called “Use of Internet and communications technology for counter-messaging purposes” – the link goes to webcast of the panel, moderated by Steven Siqueira, Acting Deputy Director, CTITF Office- UN Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT) – so wish there was a transcription from this panel! If you want to listen to just a bit, here’s my absolute favorite: go to around the 14:00 point and listen to Humera Khan, Executive Director of Muflehun – she gives realistic, practical advice on mobilizing youth to counter online messages of hate. And then listen to Jonathan Birdwell of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, right afterward, talking about teaching young people to critically engage with what they read online, and the importance of digital literacy. And then jump to around 36:00 and listen to Abdul-Rehman Malik, who has a provocative, assertive, right-on challenge to governments on this subject. The questions and answers after these three present is worth your time as well. The entire session lasts about 90 minutes, and is really worth your time to listen to (please, UN, release it as a podcast!).

I hope the people involved in these UN and civil society efforts know that, in the last 24 hours, Muslims on Twitter have hilariously trolled a Daesh leader’s call to violence – humor is a powerful tool in fighting against prejudice, and these tech-savvy Muslims are doing it brilliantly. I hope they know about online groups like Quranalyzeit and Sisters in Islam, tiny organizations doing a brilliant job online of countering extremist messages regarding Islam, and doing it as Muslims and from an Islamic perspective. Or about Mohamed Ahmed, a middle-aged father and gas station manager, and one of many Muslims in Minneapolis, Minnesota frustrated by Daesh’s stealthy social media campaigns, and countering it with a social media campaign of his own, AverageMohamed.com.

AND I HOPE EVERYONE KEEPS TALKING. Because I think they are talking about activities and messages that will really work in stopping the violence, and will make all aid and development efforts – about water, about reproductive health, about agricultural, WHATEVER – actually work, actually be sustainable. I so wish all of these efforts were getting more attention online, in traditional media, among all United Nations agencies, among NGOs, and among politicians.

Also see:

Propaganda for good (blog)

Recommendations for UN & UNDP in Ukraine to use Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and Other Social Media to Promote Reconciliation, Social Inclusion, & Peace-Building in Ukraine (PDF)

Reconciliation (a blog of frustration I wrote while working in Ukraine in 2014)

Words matter

Back in my university days, for my major in journalism, I had to take a class about ethics in journalism. And it changed my life. My “aha” moment was when the professor handed out two different news articles about the same event – a funeral. Both articles were factually accurate. In our class discussion, we noted that one story seemed rather cut-and-dry: the hearse was “gray”, the women “wore black” and they “cried openly”, etc. After reading the other article, the class said their impression was that the family of the deceased was very well off and very high class – the hearse was “silver”, the women wore “black haute couture” and they “wept”, etc. There were lots more examples we came up with that I cannot remember now, but I do remember that I started paying a lot more attention to words that were used in the media to describe events. And I still do.

I use the following as an example not to invite debate about the ethics of abortion or access to abortion, but, rather, for you to think about words, to think about those debates and the words different people use when talking about the same things. One side talks about reproductive health, personal choice, reproductive choice, health clinics, pregnancy termination, freedom from government interference and abortion access. The other side brands itself as pro-life and uses words like murder and killing and baby parts and abortion industry. You can know which side a politician is on based on which words that person uses. Both sides regularly petition the media to use particular phrasing when talking about any news related to abortion services.

Another example: following mass shootings and murders by different young white men at a Colorado movie theater in July 2012, a Connecticut elementary school in December 2012, a Charleston, South Carolina church in June 2015, and an Oregon community college in October 2015, among many others, the shooters were referred to by police and the media as loners and mentally-ill, their relationships with women were often mentioned, and the words terrorism or radicalized were rarely, or never, used by journalists or politicians in association with the events once the shooters were identified. By contrast, mental illness, relationships with women and similar references was rarely, if ever, discussed by those same people regarding mass shootings, murders and bombings in the USA by young Muslim men in Little Rock in 2009, in Boston in April 2013, in Garland, Texas in 2015, and in Chatanooga in July 2015, among many others (details are still emerging regarding the shooting in San Bernadino this week, so I’ll leave that off this list).

Another example: the estate tax versus the death tax. In the USA, when someone dies, the money and goods that they had that is passed along to heirs, usually children, is taxed by the federal government. When this tax is described as an estate tax, polls show that around 75% of voters supported it. But when the exact same proposed policy is described as a death tax, only around 15% of voters supported it.

Sometimes, our choice of words to describe something is unconscious, a matter of our education or background. Other times, the choices are quite deliberate and meant to add subtext to our message, to sway the reader or listener in a particular direction. As I said on Facebook in response to someone who implied she doesn’t think word choice matters when describing groups, people or events:

If there is anything I’ve learned in my almost 50 years – WORDS MATTER. The words we use influence, inspire, change minds, create understanding or misunderstanding, fuel flames or put them out. Using a double standard to talk about people that murder others brands one “just really sad”, and the other “terrorism.” It demonizes entire groups while letting off other groups that are the same. It’s hypocrisy.

Here is a wonderful web site from a student project at the University of Michigan on the power of word choice in news articles (it includes rather wonderful lesson plans you can use in your own trainings!). It hasn’t been updated in a long while, but the examples it uses – many from the second Iraqi war with the USA – are excellent for showing the power of word choices to influence opinion – and even create misunderstanding. Also see this lesson plan for students in grade 9 – 12 regarding word choice and bias from Media Smarts, “Canada’s centre for digital and media literacy,” for more examples of how word choices can influence our opinions.

Words matter. Choose carefully.

Also see:

Propaganda for good

I am fascinated with propaganda – information meant, specifically, to encourage a particular way of thinking – and with social engineering, the social science regarding efforts to influence attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale – call it propaganda for good.

Propaganda is communications not just to create awareness, but to persuade, to change minds, and to create advocates. It’s communications for persuasion. These are communications activities undertaken by governments, media, corporations, nonprofits, public health advocates, politicians, religious leaders/associations, terrorist groups, and on and on, and they aren’t automatically bad activities: such messaging has inspired people to wear seat belts even before there were laws requiring such, to not drink and then drive, to engage in activities for sex that prevent HIV, to read to their children, to spay and neuter their pets, to a lessening of intolerance among different groups, and on and on.

I use these techniques myself, to a degree, in trying to get nonprofits and government agencies to embrace virtual volunteering and in recruiting for diversity and in creating welcoming environments for everyone at nonprofit organizations and within government initiatives. I’m not just trying to create awareness about those concepts and practices; I’m trying to create buy-in for them, to break down resistance to them, to get initiatives to embrace them. I’m evangelizing for those concepts.

My fascination with propaganda is why I track how folklore, rumors and urban myths interfere with development and aid/relief efforts, and government initiatives, and how to prevent and address such. That subject was almost my Master’s Degree thesis; I decided the data I’d collected before I abandoned the idea of it being my thesis was too helpful not to publish, and I’ve continued to research this topic and update this resource. And I have attempted to apply my elementary understanding of social engineering in my work, most recently when I drafted Recommendations for UN & UNDP in Ukraine to use Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and Other Social Media to Promote Reconciliation, Social Inclusion, & Peace-Building in Ukraine (PDF); it offers considerations and recommendations for social media messaging that promotes reconciliation, social inclusion, and peace-building in Ukraine, and provides ideas for messaging related to promoting tolerance, respect and reconciliation in the country, and messaging to counter bigotry, prejudice, inequality, misperceptions and misconceptions about a particular group of people or different people among Ukrainians as a whole.

My fascination with communications for persuasion, not just awareness, is also why I’m fascinated with the rhetoric in the USA about how Daesh – what most Americans, unfortunately, call ISIS, ISIL or the Islamic State – uses social media to persuade. There are few details in the mainstream media and in politicians’ rhetoric on how this is really done – just comments like “He was radicalized by ISIS on Twitter,” which makes it sound like the app is somehow causing people to become terrorists. That’s why I was so happy to find this blog by J.M. Berger, a nonresident fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings and the author of “Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam”. The blog, “How terrorists recruit online (and how to stop it),” provides concrete information on how Daesh uses social media to recruit members – and it sounds a lot like the same techniques various cults have used to recruit members, before social media. The blog also provides concrete ways to counter the message, and how reporters can avoid robotically amplify the Daesh message.

Here’s the manual that Al Qaeda and now ISIS use to brainwash people online, which provides an outstanding summary of what it says – that echoes the aforementioned analysis.

December 28, 2015 addition: in an analysis paper released in early 2015, J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan, as part of the The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, answer fundamental questions about how many Twitter users support ISIS, who and where they are, and how they participate in its highly organized online activities. It notes that, in its 2014 tracking of Twitter accounts that support ISIS, 1,575 of them tweeted more than 50 times per day on average, with 545 tweeting more than 150 times per day. “These prolific users—referred to in ISIS social media strategy documents as the mujtahidun (industrious ones)—form the highly engaged core of ISIS’s social media machine. These users may not tweet every day, but when they do, they tweet a lot of content in a very short amount of time. This activity, more than any other, drives the success of ISIS’s efforts to promulgate its message on social media. Short, prolonged bursts of activity cause hashtags to trend, resulting in third-party aggregation and insertion of tweeted content into search results. Prior to the start of Twitter’s aggressive account suspensions, highly organized activity among the mujtahidun—who at one point we may have numbered as many as 3,000, including bots—allowed ISIS to dominate certain hashtags and project its material outside of its own social network to harass and intimidate outsiders, as well as to attract potential recruits.”

And here’s another article I was pleased to find, Fighting ISIS online, talking about the tiny and not-so-effective effort to counter Daesh online, and which notes:

Humera Khan, executive director of Muflehun (Arabic for “those who will be successful”), a Washington, D.C., think tank devoted to fighting Islamic extremism, says people like her and (Paul) Dietrich who try such online interventions face daunting math. “The ones who are doing these engagements number only in the tens. That is not sufficient. Just looking at ISIS-supporting social-media accounts—those numbers are several orders of magnitude larger,” says Khan. “In terms of recruiting, ISIS is one of the loudest voices. Their message is sexy, and there is very little effective response out there. Most of the government response isn’t interactive. It’s a one-way broadcast, not a dialogue.”…

Social-media research has shown that messages from friends and peers are more persuasive than general advertising. Other bodies of research show that youth at risk of falling into many kinds of trouble, from drugs to gangs, often benefit from even small interventions by parents, mentors, or peers. But so far, major anti-ISIS programs don’t involve that kinds of outreach.

That emphasis is mine. I find these articles fascinating – and woefully ignored by governments and moderate Muslims in the fight online, and via traditional media, against Daesh.

This article from The Atlantic explores the strategy further: “ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas. Instead, it exploits an increasingly networked world to sell its violent and apocalyptic ideology to a microscopic minority—people who are able to discover each other from a distance and organize collective action in ways that were virtually impossible before the rise of the Internet.”

I would love to see moderate, peace-focused Islamic social groups with a good understanding of online communications, like MuflehunQuranalyzeit and Sisters in Islam, receive grants to hire more staff, train other organizations, and create a MUCH larger, more robust movement on social media with their loving, pro-women, Islamic-based messages. Such tiny organizations are doing a brilliant job of countering extremist messages regarding Islam, and doing it as Muslims and from an Islamic perspective. But they are drowned out by Daesh. Governments also need to not do this.

December 11, 2015 addition:  Mohamed Ahmed, once a typical middle-aged father and gas station manager, is one of many Muslim Minneapolians to do whatever he can to fight extremism in his state. Frustrated by the Islamic State’s stealthy social media campaigns, Mr. Ahmed decided to make a social media campaign of his own. Ahmed has used his own money to produce and develop his website, AverageMohamed.com. On his site, Ahmed creates cartoons and videos so average people can share “logical talking points countering falsehood propagated by extremists.” More about how Minnesota Muslims work to counter extremist propaganda.

The reality is that the Hulk, Smash! strategy will not work to fight terrorist ideology and the violent results of such. Nazism survived the bombing and defeat of Nazi Germany. Bombing cities is not what marginalized the Ku Klux Klan, and bombing cities does not stop people like (and that have supported the ideas of) Timothy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph or Jim Jones. We know what’s work. Let’s fund it and do it.

Index of my own communications advice

folklore / text messaging interfering with development, aid/relief & public health initiatives

I’ve recently updated a resource I started back in 2004:

Folklore, Rumors (or Rumours) & Urban Myths Interfering with Development & Aid/Relief Efforts, & Government Initiatives (& how these are overcome)

Folklore, rumors (or rumours) and urban myths / urban legends often interfere with relief and development activities, and government initiatives, including public health initiatives — even bringing such to a grinding halt. They create ongoing misunderstandings among communities and cultures, prevent people from seeking help, encourage people to engage in unhealthy and even dangerous practices, cultivate mistrust of people and institutions, and have even lead to mobs of people attacking someone or others for no reason other than something they heard from a friend of a friend of a friend. And now, with cell phone text messaging and social media, it’s easier than ever to spread such misinformation.

This resource has examples of this happening – in developing countries but also in the USA – and how to prevent or address such. And I’ve had the opportunity to update it recently. It’s a project that I would love to devote more time to, but I really need that time funded.