In this case study, we explore the key features of misinformation, while outlining the danger of its circulation in local communities. Using the example of Birmingham City Council to inform local government and community leaders as to how to tackle the spread of misinformation.

How Can We Define Misinformation?

Misinformation can be defined as information that contains false details. The Tony Blair Institute has introduced the misinformation spectrum to highlight the different types of false information [1]:

False information is active in many forms. Stephen Kinsella, a member of Clean up the Internet outlines the diverse motives of those who spread misinformation [2]:

  • State groups with agendas of subversion or disruption
  • Political groups with ideological motives
  • Networks of conspiracy theorists
  • Commercial operations selling unregulated products 

Why Should we be Worried About Misinformation?

Consequences of the spread of misinformation include [1]:

  • Conspiracy theories circulating within communities causing harm
  • A contributor to inadequate media literacy
  • Compromised cyber security
  • Diminishing trust in government and institutions
  • Radicalisation
  • Amplification online
  • Fatalities because of misinformation on public health concerns

Birmingham City Council: Misinformation Surrounding Covid-19

Birmingham City Council provides an interesting case study, highlighting the journey of misinformation from the time it develops to the moment it is tackled [3]. Dr Justin Varney is the Director of Public Health for Birmingham City Council. Justin leads on strategic plans to improve the health and wellbeing of its citizens in the largest local authority of the UK.

Justin became the face of public health in Birmingham during the outbreak of Covid-19. He was faced with the job of targeting misinformation surrounding the virus while ensuring that accurate information was actively circulating in the city.

The challenges faced by Birmingham during the pandemic are examples of how misinformation can manifest. They highlight concerns over how misinformation can be transferred through the public to the wider community.

Regarding misinformation during the pandemic, Dr Varney noted:

  • 25% of Birmingham’s population is under the age of 18. Therefore, the council had to be aware of the forms of social media this age group were using to consume information. Such as TikTok, media they may not be familiar with monitoring.
  • Birmingham is a city with significant deprivation. This means that a percentage of the population struggle to afford mobile data that would give them access to accurate information.
  • The city has strong links across the world with over 40% of the population being from non- White British ethnicities. Consequently, there is a constant flow of information between the city and migrant-home countries.
  • Misinformation can be fatal. An incident in which a voice recording was circulated across the city contained instructions, telling people to not go to hospital upon feeling unwell. This recording resulted in several fatalities.

Tackling Misinformation Across Birmingham

Upon identifying the sources of misinformation, tactics must be developed to keep the spread under control.

Dr Varney highlights the fundamental role that politicians play in tackling misinformation, particularly elected members at ward level.

He highlighted that the public needed to see him as a trusted, knowledgeable, and honest source of information. He participated in weekly Instagram live Q&A’s to familiarise his community with him.

The team developed a Communication and Engagement delivery plan as soon as they had compiled enough accurate information to provide their community. This involved:

  • To support the diverse communities across the city
  • To promote awareness and understanding of Covid-19
  • To sustain and build upon existing local engagement and communication
  • To involve communities of place, identity, interest, and other stakeholders

Dr Varney went on to compile a set of engagement framework objectives:


[3] Birmingham City Councils Covid-19 Engagement Framework Objectives

Additionally, they initiated targeted engagement through community champions. These individuals represented the council by ensuring that accurate information on the virus was fed back to other members of their community. This was done through:

  • Weekly newsletter, emails, texts, and surveys
  • Dedicated websites
  • Dedicated Faith leaders speaking to their communities

These methods proved effective. Birmingham achieved no outbreaks within Faith-based communities during the pandemic. Dr Varney puts this achievement down to community champions tackling misinformation and pushing accurate information as trusted community leaders.

Recommendations

Dr Varney has outlined the key strategies that worked well in ensuring that misinformation was tackled during the pandemic before it could harm the wider community. These should be used as a reference point for local government when managing risk in their communities through monitoring the flow of information.

  • Coproduced strategies that are citizen-led
  • Amplifying citizen voices
  • Individual and community empowerment through commissioned partnerships across all community threads
  • Consistent translation of key materials and messages into top 10 spoken languages in the community
  • The building of trust and rapport with all subgroups in the wider community
  • Open dialogue and honesty
  • Effective collaboration and networks
  • Early risk management

Future plans of Birmingham City Council to tackle the problem of misinformation involve enhancing and expanding on these strategies, by using evaluation and feedback to gain more representation, reach and responses across the diverse communities they serve.

Key Takeaways

Lindsay White from Constella Intelligence attended our tackling misinformation event in July 2021. She rounded up 5 important takeaways worth sharing [4]:

  1. Misinformation is cyber. “It’s important that we start seeing scams and cheapshots as forms of misinformation, no different from a meme that overstates the threat or opportunity of a trend. “
  2. Fake news holds some truth. “There’s always a kernel of truth contained in any piece of misinformation”
  3. Misinformation is what we DON’T know. “Dr. Justin Varney remarked that what’s contained in community Whatsapp groups, memes & messenger chats in private is where misinformation proliferates and works its real black magic”
  4. Vulnerable groups are worst affected. “Digital exclusion is a piece of the puzzle. This isn’t defined as a lack of electronic devices – everyone has a smartphone – but the precise amount of roaming data you have (and what you pay) affects the level of smart services you can access”
  5. .‘Pre-bunking’ beats de-bunking. By gamifying social change interventions, you can simulate a real social media post or meme technique used so commonly to propagate misinformation or disinformation. “

[1] Beverton-Palmer, Max. 2021. The Tony Blair Institute. The misinformation spectrum.

[2] Kinsella, Stephen, 2021. Cleaning up the Internet

[3] Varney, Justin, 2021. Director of Public Health for Birmingham City Council

[4] White, Lindsay, 2021. Constella Intelligence. Shocking if True…5 Takeaways from Tackling Misinformation 2021

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Misinformation can be defined as information that contains false details. This case study defines the term misinformation while identifying the main forms that it can take and the key issues that it can cause in local communities.

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