• Mary MacCarthy

UN leader says disinformation is as dangerous as the virus itself

Updated: May 6, 2020

Helene Papper is the Director of the United Nations Information Center for Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. It's a demanding role in the best of times, and one that's become significantly more intense over the past two months - as the world battles not just a pandemic, but also, in her words, a "global pandemic of disinformation."

Helene told us how she's coping with the challenges of Covid-19 - which includes doing her high-pressure job from her apartment, while also homeschooling her six year-old boy as a single mother.

HOW ARE YOU GETTING BY? In mid-March I was traveling for work, and I flew from New York City back to Bogotá - where I'm based - just as Colombia was shutting down its borders. Dealing with infectious diseases is not new to me. I’ve lived and worked in Haiti, South Sudan, and Mali. I arrived in Mali in December 2014 on the day the country announced its first case of Ebola. I helped lead the information campaign there. But with Ebola, we were dealing with much more of a known entity - compared to the uncertainty that still surrounds Covid-19.

Here in Bogotá, we immediately got to work setting up information websites about the virus. We partnered with municipalities to get public service announcements out, on the radio and also on loudspeakers. We translate the messages into 12-15 indigenous languages.

A recent Instagram live, part of Helene's campaign to fight disinformation about the pandemic

At first, our messages focused on the basic information: wash your hands, do social distancing, and be aware that you can be asymptomatic and still be infected.

We quickly realized that our challenge was two-fold: getting out the basic facts on how to slow contagion, but also, fighting a huge amount of disinformation that was spreading. On our websites, we had to set up “fake news” areas to point out what’s true and what’s false. We also partnered with Colombia’s police on this, with their cybersecurity task force. During a pandemic, fake news can literally kill people.

Basically, we've found ourselves fighting a global pandemic of disinformation. In Latin America, in many ways the issue is the same as in the U.S.: in recent years, there’s been a growing confusion about what media outlets you can trust. About what sources are real, where certain messages are coming from, and so on. So it’s nothing new. But during a crisis, that confusion comes to the surface. We all have a part to play in this. It’s very important that people understand that, yes it’s important and wonderful that we have freedom of expression, and that we have access to social media platforms. But with that freedom comes responsibility.

You want to express yourself? Do it - but first, check your sources. Social media can be as dangerous as the virus - it knows no boundaries, no borders. In a world in which people don’t know what to believe - it seems that either they end up believing everything they see, or they believe nothing they see.

In Ecuador, this has been a real issue - in the city of Guayaquil we have seen the power and impact of social media, for better or worse.

Guayaquil is one of the worst Covid-19 hotspots in all of Latin America. On social media, we started to see videos of corpses piling up in the street. Immediately there was confusion about whether the videos were fake or doctored. The situation was so bad that it initially seemed like the images could not be real. Tragically, in this case, the videos did turn out to be authentic. This is something that we didn’t have to deal with ten or even five years ago. Fortunately, there are more and more tools available to check if videos and photos have been doctored. We partnered with the French news agency AFP (Agence France Presse) to work together verifying the authenticity of photos and videos that are circulating. But that takes a lot of time.

Another issue we're dealing with is online scams. We’re seeing misguided people taking advantage of the pandemic. For example, a doctor - or pseudo-doctor - was distributing flyers under people’s doors, claiming to have a cure for Covid-19. He was charging 120-thousand pesos. That’s about $40, and it’s a lot of money in the communities he was targeting. There was also a group of con artists on WhatsApp, using the United Nations name. They told people, if you stay home, the U.N. will deliver you a basket of food - all you have to do is send them your name and a copy of your I.D. Of course, they were just trying to get the IDs in order to commit identity theft. Meanwhile, people were waiting for these baskets of food, and some of them ended up protesting outside the U.N. building, wondering where the promised food was!

Helene and Micha are in week eight of lock down!

It’s not easy. And I’m among the very lucky ones. I have a job with steady income. No doubt about it - I am in a position of extreme privilege, compared to millions of people in my zone of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, and throughout the rest of the world.

That said, it's important that we talk about the difficulties that all of us are having, on a day-to-day basis, as we live through the pandemic. As we adjust to living our lives on all these new online platforms - for work and for our kids.

We've been shut in since March 12 when I returned from New York - my son Micha and I had to go into quarantine since I had been traveling, then a bit later the national lock down was implemented. Authorities here are very strict about it. Only one person from the household can go out to pick up essentials. On odd days, only men go out. On even days, only women.

It's important to remember that it’s hard for kids, too - especially not knowing how things are going to progress from one day to another. The past few days, we keep hearing the government might lighten the rules, what they call the "de-confinement" - but then, we hear there could be a bad second wave of the virus coming.

Freedom! Enjoying a rare chance to get fresh air...

In the evenings, I sometimes take Micha out to run in the pedestrian alley in front of our apartment building. He's just six and he needs that. All the indoor time is so unhealthy for kids. The first time we went out like that, a police officer told me we couldn't be outside. I told him, "Officer, if people can come out to walk their dogs, surely I can walk my son for a few minutes?"

As for keeping up with his schoolwork, to be honest, it's a lot to deal with. I'm staying on top of it, just not all of it. Above all, I don't want Micha to be stressed out about it.

For single parents, homeschooling is quite the challenge.

I've had to accept that Micha will spend a lot of time on screens, watching cartoons and playing games. Now he’s really into MineCraft, and he watches videos of people talking about the game. I feel like it's probably too early for him to be so into video games. Suddenly he’s telling me he wants to be a YouTuber and an Instagrammer - things he didn’t know about a month ago.

Micha helping his mom with chores

He misses his Taekwondo classes, which fortunately he can do online every day at 5pm. Sometimes, though, I'm so wrapped up in work that I forget to turn those on for him.

I wish I could spend my days playing games with him, and doing fun activities. But I just can't. It's the reality for millions of working parents. I get up a lot earlier than I used to. Just taking care of the house takes a lot of time. Micha has started helping me with that. He waters the plants, feeds the birds and the cat, and vacuums. It’s a new way of managing things.

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