Preventing Folklore, Rumors (or
Rumours) & Urban Myths
From Interfering with Development & Aid/Relief Efforts &
On another page, I list situations
where rumors and myth-spreading has interfered with development, aid or
relief efforts, including post disaster situations, and government
Rumors that interfere with development and aid/relief efforts and
government initiatives come from:
Anyone working in development or relief efforts, or working in government
organizations, needs to be aware of the power of rumor, and prepared to
prevent and to counter such, whatever the source.
- misinterpretations of what a community is seeing, hearing or
- from previous community experiences or their cultural beliefs,
- willful misrepresentation by people who, for whatever reason, want to
derail a development or relief activity, or
- unintentional but inappropriate or hard-to-understand words or
actions by a communicator
A good place to start is with the acknowledgement that interpersonal
sources of information play a HUGE role in communications delivery all
over the world, whether in a low-literacy village in a developing country
or a large urban area in an emerging economy or a "fully developed"
Western-style democracy. Interpersonal communications can both promote AND
counter rumors and myth and, therefore, must be kept in mind when
launching any communications strategy -- or counter strategy -- regarding
a development or aid activity.
Also, a conclusion that can be reached in looking at the various ways
myth and misinformation has interfered with development efforts is that
the more a development activity is seen as outsiders-coming-in, the more
likely it can be derailed by rumors. By contrast, the more development
activities or government initiatives are perceived as owned by the people
to be served, the more rumor-proof such activities will be. If
messages come from those a community trusts, and via the ways a
community communicates naturally, the messages are more likely to be
The importance of social mobilization as a part of development
activities is tremendous in preventing or countering myth as an obstacle
Social Mobilization, as defined by UNICEF, is a broad scale
movement to engage people's participation in achieving a specific
development goal through self-reliant efforts. It involves all relevant
segments of society: decision and policy makers, opinion leaders,
bureaucrats and technocrats, professional groups, religious associations,
commerce and industry, communities and individuals. It is a planned
decentralized process that seeks to facilitate change for development
through a range of players engaged in interrelated and complementary
efforts. It takes into account the felt needs of the people, embraces the
critical principle of community involvement, and seeks to empower
individuals and groups for action... Mobilizing the necessary resources,
disseminating information tailored to targeted audiences, generating
intersectoral support and fostering cross-professional alliances are also
part of the process. Social mobilization in total aims at a continuum of
activities in a broad strategic framework. The process encompasses
dialogue and partnership with a wide spectrum of societal elements.
Another point to keep in mind is the idea of "motivated reasoning." As
described by sociologist Andrew Perrin of the University of North Carolina,
Chapel Hill in an article by LiveScience.com's Jeanna Bryner, "Motivated
reasoning is essentially starting with a conclusion you hope to reach and
then selectively evaluating evidence in order to reach that conclusion." It
means working backward from a firmly-held belief to find supporting facts,
rather than letting evidence inform one's views and hoping people go in the
right direction. The key is to know what that belief is at the onset.
The ICEC and
Global Social Mobilization, October 2000
The International Communication Enhancement Center
With those thoughts in mind, below is a list of activities I've seen
reported as being effective in preventing and countering rumors and myth
from interfering with development or relief activities, or government
initiatives, as well as activities I've undertaken myself. However, please
note that this is not a comprehensive list (I'm sure there are more out
there), nor are all of these communications activities appropriate for
every development/aid or government effort:
Also see: How to Handle Online Criticism.
How a nonprofit or government organization handles online criticism is going
to speak volumes about that organization, for weeks, months, and maybe even
years to come. There's no way to avoid criticism, but there are ways
to address criticism that can actually help an organization to be perceived
as even more trustworthy and worth supporting -- and the Internet can help.
- Acknowledge that everyone is a potential messenger - every
staff member (employee, consultant and volunteer), every client, every
person who observes a development action - and even the family members
and neighbors of all of these people. Remember this as you design any
development activity, campaign or response.
- Never assume that people with senior management titles, nor local
people, automatically understand how to communicate effectively, nor
that they are ready to communicate regarding a particular development
activity. They need to be trained, just like everyone else, regarding
message delivery and fundamental facts. During the early days of the
H1N1 virus scares in the USA, even Vice-President Biden of the USA, a
very educated and respected leader, misspoke about prevention methods in
an interview with the press, causing widespread confusion.
- Don't prepare a plan only on facts and statistics, because people
don't reason with pure facts and logic alone. Think about how people --
both messengers and community members -- already feel about the
issues at hand and the symbolism they might be seeing in events and
- Provide ongoing training to all those who will take part in
delivering the message (international staff, national staff, partners,
volunteers, clients, etc.), and ongoing opportunities for two-way
discussion with these messengers. The goal is to ensure that:
- the core messages are fully understood by everyone delivering
those messages - including when they deliver them informally to
family and neighbors,
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) can be all answered in a
- messengers feel confident and remain fact-based in all
- messengers know how to identify and address hostility/fear,
- messengers know how to identify possible sources of
- messengers know when to not confront,
- everyone is committed to continual internal communications
regarding their work and what they are hearing in the field.
- Map and utilize formal and informal, official and unofficial, social
networks (sports events, river clothes-washing point, religious-based
gatherings, ceremonies, online communities associated with sports or
politics or even religion, etc.). These will be used to deliver the
message (whether you plan for such or not). They can also be used to
listen to how the message is being received.
- Develop a plan of action with local representatives on how to provide
immediate information as quickly and widely as possible in the case of
possible panic (as panic can lead to rioting, looting and fear-driven
crime). Such a plan should incorporate radio, TV, community meetings,
phone text messaging (not just Twitter,
as not everyone interacts with Twitter via cell phone text messages) and
various online avenues on the Internet (online discussion groups, Facebook
or whatever the most popular social media platforms are in the country,
etc.). Even in an area with low Internet access, people have family and
friends in areas that DO have Internet or cell phone access, and they
can communicate what they read or hear via phone, text message and/or
- Monitor and supervise, formally and informally, on an ongoing basis,
communications activities. All partners and messengers, formal and
informal, should feel empowered to be monitors, to gather and report on
feedback. They should understand that community conversations happen
formally and informally: on talk radio, at religious-based gatherings,
around dinner tables, while shopping, etc.
- Cultivate strong political commitment that is exhibited and
constantly reinforced at the local, regional and national level, among
various government offices (not just one). Encourage and support the
coordination of communications efforts among different government
offices. Observe message delivery by government officials to ensure
deliverers are remaining fact-based (see next bullet for ideas on how to
test their understanding).
- Organize ongoing consultations with religious leaders, to garner
their ongoing public involvement/endorsement, both on how to deliver the
message and advising on how to counter hostilities/fears. One meeting
will NOT fully educate this (or any) group on how to communicate
effectively. And don't just ask yes or no questions ("Do you agree?");
ask questions that encourage the person to put the message in his or her
own words ("How would you describe this initiative to, say, a mother
that comes to you and is fearful about the activity?" or "Why do you
think this initiative is important to the community?").
- Involve/consult with both traditional/officially-recognized community
leaders and those who are unofficial (key women members of the
community, or a non-religious, non-elected community leader who is
sought after for advice, for instance), both on how to deliver the
message and advising on how to counter hostilities/fears. Efforts must
be ongoing (see entry regarding religious leaders, above).
- Collaborate with and invite the participation of NGOs in message
delivery and informal monitoring of how messages are being received.
Coordinate efforts with their own.
- Identify those who might be possible sources of misinformation,
intentionally or unintentionally, before undertaking any field-based
activity. Try to understand their psychology of belief: why they or
anyone else might believe something that is not true and reject or
ignore fact-based information that contradicts that belief. Try to
identify real grievances people have had with government, media,
doctors, certain businesses, etc., that may lead to a resistance to
- Remember that human's have natural tendency to resist correction.
Correct information may make them double-down on their beliefs in
misinformation. Think about ways to guide people towards correct
information while acknowledging their real grievances that may lead to
the misinformation, and without making them feel or look "wrong." Try to
cite sources that they do believe in and trust.
- People tend to have hostilities reduced when they believe their
concerns are being heard and addressed. Allow those who are opposed to
an activity, or who might be, to voice concerns, both publicly and
privately. Remember that one meeting will probably not be enough for
fears to be aired, and honest feedback may come through unofficial
- Get different influential people on board who represent different
factions. If there is conflict between different factions -- different
religious groups, different tribes, different alliances, etc. -- do your
best not to look like you are favoring one side over another. Be as
inclusive and neutral as possible. Stress again and again that your goal
is related specifically to a development activity, not to anything
- Consult intensively with radio and TV for message delivery through
public service announcements, dramas, news delivery, talk shows, etc.
Never assume that a reporter understands the facts regarding an activity
you are undertaking without someone from your initiative actually
briefing that reporter - and telling them upfront how you will be
answering certain questions. Also, ask reporters/show hosts what they
are hearing from their audiences.
- Cultivate newspaper articles and design and place newspaper ads (if
population is literate). Collaborate with grade school and secondary
teachers/instructors to reinforce message and provide feedback on
- Look for ways for the private sector and trade unions to be involved
in delivering or reinforcing messages, particularly if there is any
chance such could be a source of misinformation.
- Ensure that those who will be involved in a field activity or will
provide any communications about such do not act in a way that is
counter to what is being promoted (those who are going to promote polio
vaccinations for children, for instance, should have their own children
vaccinated; those talking about AIDS-prevention should know that taking
a shower after sex doesn't prevent HIV/AIDS; etc.).
- Ensure information on the key organizer's web site, as well as online
information by partner organizations, is accurate.
- Use the Facebook status
updates, Twitter feeds and other
online social media platforms of all participating organizations to
deliver messages and counter misinformation.
- Seek out misinformation online
and be ready to counter it with your own Internet activities, via
web sites, online discussion groups/bulletin boards, and email. A good
example of this is FEMA's
Hurricane Sandy Rumor Control web site in 2012.
- Create billboards and posters that reinforce messages
(culturally-appropriate, preferably designed by community members) and
place these where people, including specific parts of a community (young
men, mothers, elderly women, children, etc.) gather.
- Garner public endorsements by famous entertainment or sports figures
(for instance, in Liberia in 2008, a pop star created a pop song to
allay fears regarding the upcoming census). Remember that "famous" is
relative: someone well-known among adults may not be well-known among
teenagers, and vice versa, or someone famous in rural areas may be
unknown in cities, and vice versa.
- Organize high-profile events focused on message delivery (formal
campaign launches/press events, theater/live performance, rickshaw
- Provide opportunities for the public to see the activity, either
firsthand or on TV, in a way that allows them to see and understand
whatever process or activity is being undertaken.
- Be ready to be flexible and to adjust your strategies and activities
- Have a plan for crisis communications always ready! These steps
should be taken before any crisis takes place:
- Design a crisis communications tree, where anyone who is a part
of the message delivery, including partners, can report
communications problems/concerns to a focal point, who then ensures
the problem/concern is communicated across the core communications
team and appropriate action can be taken immediately.
- Develop a written protocol on what to do if there is a need for
rapid deployment of information and spokespeople, and make sure it
has been communicated to all appropriate staff and that they each
understand their role. Regularly revisit this plan with staff (no
one will learn a protocol through just one presentation of such).
- Compile a list of reporters, radio talk show hosts, radio DJs, TV
personalities, bloggers, Tweeters and leaders of communities of
faith (churches, mosques, temples, etc.) who you will contact if you
need to respond to rumors immediately (you should already have an
established relationship with these folks!).
- Compile a list of people at your organization and partner
organizations (including government officials) who can be rapidly
mobilized, briefed and made available to talk to the press.
- Remember that everyone is a potential messenger; all
staff should be briefed about an emerging communications crisis and
know what to say and how to respond in the course of their work, no
matter what that work is.
- Remember that your goal is message saturation; you want the
targeted population to hear your message more than once, and from
more than one source.
In my opinion, the three lessons that all the aforementioned activities
reinforce altogether is:
Also, the above suggestions are no substitution for reading in-depth about
rumor and myth interfering with development efforts. Recommendations for
further reading will be provided as I find such!
- the vital importance of being in-tune with local people,
- that those behind a development or aid effort must work to be
perceived as coming from a place of honesty, sincerity and respect for
local people, and
- that the message must be owned and delivered primarily by local
(if a URL no longer works, try searching for the title on Google,
or look at the source code for this page and cut and paste the desired URL
(if a URL no longer works, try searching for the title on Google,
or look at the source code for this page and cut and paste the desired URL
have 3 tips to help journalists debunk misinformation," an article
that summarizes research by Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth, and
Jason Reifler, a lecturer at the University of Exeter, called "Which
Corrections Work," about specific advice for how journalists can
best correct misinformation. That advice is coupled with related
experiments they conducted to reinforce the tips. October 2013.
- Presentations at the Technical Advisory Group meeting on
Communication for Polio Eradication in Nigeria, Niger and Congo, by
UNICEF and ministries of health for different countries, Harare,
- Presentations at the UNICEF Afghanistan polio communication review
meeting in Kabul, September 25 - 27, 2007
- Radio Australia interview with Kym Smithies of the UNDP mission in
- Essays by Etherton, M. , Ganguly, S. (2004) and Marlin-Curiel, S. in
Theatre and Empowerment: Community Drama on the World Stage,
Boon, R. and Plastow, J. (eds.), University of Leeds.
Care Debate Based on Total Lack of Logic", by Jeanna Bryner, LiveScience.com
- "U.S. Team in Baghdad Fights a Persistent Enemy: Rumors" by Thom
Shanker, March 23, 2004, The New York Times
- CNN story, Liberia
tries pop song, billboards to calm census fears, from March 20,
to aid anti-polio campaign in Tribal Areas (in Afghanistan), from
the Daily Times, January 16, 2009
- Informal interviews by the author with various aid workers
- First-hand experience by the author, Jayne
Also see Towards
Polio Communication Indicators: A Discussion Document, February 2008
from The Communication Initiative
(scroll down the page to download the document; the summary doesn't really
capture the important points of this document, IMO).
Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking myths, by John Cook and
Stephan Lewandowsky. This is a summary of various research literature,
offering practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the
influence of misinformation. The Handbook will be available as a free,
downloadable PDF at the end of its 6-part blog series (which is still
underway as of November 2011).
What I'm also wondering: are their any efforts in developing and
transitional countries similar to the myth-busting Straight
Dope column by Cecil Adams in the USA? Or truthorfiction.com?
Or hoax-slayer.com? Or MythBusters?
If you know of such, please contact me.
I'm not interested in just urban legends but, specifically misinformation
that interferes with relief or development efforts, or government
initiatives, including after disasters or conflict. And most
especially, I'm interested in ways that such misinformation has been
countered successfully. If you have related information or examples,
please contact me.
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