Addressing misinformation about Covid-19 in Burkina Faso

Reporting in Ouaga

Dr Emma Heywood is a lecturer in Journalism, Politics and Communication at our University. She leads the research project FemmepowermentAfrique, which has just secured £110k in research funding from the global humanitarian charity ELRHA for a project which uses radio and social media to address misinformation about Covid-19 in Burkina Faso.

This research is carried out on the background of an unprecedented humanitarian emergency which is taking place in Burkina Faso as a result of fighting between opposing armed groups and the national army and their allies. There are currently 848,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) being housed in camps and host communities. The situation is now being worsened by Covid-19 and attempts to provide information on this front are being undermined by rumour and the spread of misinformation. This nine-month urgent response project is working with IDPs in Burkina Faso using online messaging platforms.

The team comprises researchers and radio experts from Burkina Faso, Belgium, Switzerland and the UK and collects data on information which is circulating in camps and host communities regarding Covid-19. This information is then fact-checked and addressed in local radio broadcasts over the course of several months so that IDPs receive accurate and up-to-date factual information. Impact assessments are also carried out to determine the value of the radio broadcasts.

We spoke to Dr Heywood about the project and how Covid-19 has impacted the team’s research:

Tell us about your research background and how you became interested in this area.

My background is in investigating conflict reporting and representations of conflict. Thanks to British Academy funding, I was able to focus on radio and NGO interactions in the West Bank in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I then had the opportunity to expand my research when I was put in contact with Fondation Hirondelle, a Swiss-based media development organisation, who were interested in my work and suggested I could work with them examining their radio output in francophone areas of Africa. This whole project in Africa is conducted in French - fortunately I can speak French - but we also work in local languages.

On the Journalism Studies MA in Global Journalism, I run a module on Radio and NGOs in Conflict-Affected Areas, so I can bring this project into my teaching. We discuss radio and the importance of NGOs but also the main constraints and influences on their work.

Can you tell us more about FemmepowermentAfrique and how the research project began?

The FemmepowermentAfrique project has several externally funded parts and aims to assess the impact of radio on women’s rights and empowerment in the Sahel region of Africa. It investigates perceptions of women’s empowerment in this context and produces recommendations to the benefit of radio organisations, media, listeners and marginalised and disempowered communities in the three countries of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. We work on participatory projects and collaborate with academics and researchers in the three countries; for example, in Burkina Faso, we work with academics from CNRST, Ouaga-II University. Thus the project facilitates an exchange of knowledge and experiences.

We work with communities in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso – countries at the bottom of the human development index and the poorest in the world. A lot of people in the region are illiterate and so radio is their primary source of information. Even for those that are able to read, newspapers aren’t widespread and may be biased and lacking in the information people need. In addition, many are without a source of electricity and don’t have the funds to buy computers or smartphones to allow them to download anything or go on the internet.

We started the overall project in 2018, conducting an impact assessment in Niger where we looked at a radio station called Studio Kalangou, created and run by Fondation Hirondelle. We held focus groups in and around the capital, Niamey, to get listeners’ opinions about certain topics which were going to be covered by a series of radio programmes. After these programmes had been broadcast, we spoke to the same group of people again to find out if they had any impact from the radio - whether their conduct changed, whether their knowledge changed, etc. We also found out about what they remembered and enjoyed, and fed that back into the radio studio.

We also held participatory workshops with local NGOs and organisations. We asked them what they wanted from the research and asked the women’s associations ‘What do you think would be advisable to ask? How should we ask it? What would be beneficial?’. We also held workshops at the end of the project and fed back to the participants about what has changed, what will continue to change and why their voice has been so important in facilitating these changes.

I’m very interested in women and women’s empowerment, so what I try to do is make sure that there’s proper representation of women on women’s programming, so there aren’t always men dominating. Now, because of our research, Studio Kalangou has started a ‘women’s hour’ at the weekend

You've just secured research funding from the global humanitarian charity ELRHA for a project which uses radio and social media to address misinformation about Covid-19 in Burkina Faso. What impact do you hope this research will have?

With this project, we’re looking at Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso has one of the highest growing rates of IDPs in the world but this is being missed in the media. In April, there were 848,000 IDPs in the country and they don’t necessarily have sufficient access to information that is factually accurate. Our aim is to find out what better information they can be given with regard to Covid-19.

The Covid situation, whilst significant, isn’t as dire as it is in the UK, interestingly. This is due to various reasons, be it tracking, a younger population, or hotter temperatures etc. Nonetheless, people still need information and to have awareness. Our aim is to recruit IDP data collectors within camps and host communities who can pass on any and all information they hear about Covid which is circulating among IDPs. We can then fact check this information and provide the radio studio with it so that they can include advice or raise awareness on a particular issue in their broadcasts.

We are working with Studio Yafa based in the capital Ouagadougou, created and run by Fondation Hirondelle. Studio Yafa works with a series of radio partners nationally, ensuring that this information will therefore impact on IDP populations throughout the country. In turn, this will impact the activities of humanitarian and other media actors in delivering information on containing the virus because misinformation will have been addressed and greater trust will have been built through the provision of accurate and regular information. Populations will value their voices being heard via the data collectors, reinforcing the cycle of information. This is particularly important for IDPs in Burkina Faso as marginalised members of Burkinabe society. Thus, the research contributes to the understanding and trust of the affected population vis-à-vis the authorities, humanitarian and public health actors, and to the accountability of those actors vis-à-vis the affected population. It also contributes to better inter-community understanding and helps prevent tensions exacerbated by misinformation, stereotyping and rumours. Hopefully, we might see Covid-19 die out before the end of the project. That would be the ideal scenario, but it will enable lessons to be learned from the Covid-19 outbreak for other public health crises affecting IDPs in Burkina Faso and beyond.

As I mentioned, the populations of the three countries we are investigating are the poorest in the world and have no attention being paid to them, and the little attention that is paid to them is about immigration and conflict. There’s little on the actual people. Communication is vital. If you give people factual information, they can be informed and then make a decision about who is running the country and what they’re doing. It contributes to reinforcing democratic processes. Radio is vital in providing this information but can go beyond this. For example, one of the radio stations we’re working with in Mali, Studio Tamani, started an education programme at the beginning of June. There have been strikes in the country and now with Covid-19, young people haven’t been able to go to school, so you have a whole layer of the population who aren’t educated and are missing vital opportunities. Radio is helping ensure that those people are kept educated.

Speaking of Covid-19, has this impacted how you are carrying out your research?

Whilst some of our planned face-to-face workshops in the three countries (Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso) have had to be postponed or are now being conducted using online conferencing tools because of Covid-19, our data collection is still going ahead as we are using online messaging platforms. This ensures social distancing and the safety of all involved but still enables information to be gathered. Including similar contingency options in projects would always be a necessary part of working in crisis- and conflict-affected areas. Obviously, the ELRHA-funded project in Burkina Faso with IPDs is Covid-focused. All those concerned are provided with the relevant protection, but again all data collection is designed to take place online to ensure social distancing.

How can staff follow the project and keep up to date with its progress?

Have a look at our website for publications and blog posts covering our research as and when it happens.