Localising Digital Knowledge to Combat Disinformation on Covid-19 in Timor-Leste

Doublethink Lab

Localizing Digital Rights Knowledge in Timor-Leste is a grant-funded project under Disinformation Lab, a collaborative initiative between Innovation for Change East Asia and Doublethink Lab.

Disinformation Lab brings together and mentors digital rights campaigners from across East Asia to brainstorm and prototype new solutions to the region’s disinformation challenges.

In the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, Timor-Leste successfully controlled the spread of coronavirus as a result of strict border controls and other pandemic-prevention measures. However, by March 2021, positive cases in the country began to soar.

Vaccine-hesitancy immediately emerged as an issue, with resistance prevalent across the population, including among some medical workers. Distrust of the authorities, and long-held cultural beliefs that favor traditional cures over modern medical science were driving factors. Facebook, which has a penetration rate of almost 99% in Timor-Leste, quickly became a vector of Covid-19 disinformation. Some content was derived from Indonesia, while locals also shared unverified videos and images.

Timor-Leste’s digital rights community quickly identified the need to create counter-resources in local languages that promote awareness of Covid-19 disinformation. A young Timorese activist, Fernando Ximenes, raised the issue during a “training of trainers” workshop on civil society capacity building to counter disinformation conducted by Doublethink Lab, and Ying Hooi, a senior lecturer at the University of Malaya, answered the call for assistance. Together, the pair were able to localize disinformation workshop material and create Facebook campaigns, including infographics and a music video, in Tetum, the local language.

In collaboration with the Association Journalist Timor-Leste (AJTL), the team also hosted a one day face-to-face workshop aiming to promote media literacy among local youth that attracted more than 20 participants. In addition, the project team created three infographics that emphasize the harm caused by disinformation and the importance of media literacy, especially as regards Covid-19. These infographics were widely shared by workshop participants via WhatsApp and Facebook.

Local film and television studio, Malkriadu Cinema, assisted with producing the music video about combating Covid-19 disinformation. They invited Tiu Apati, a popular figure in Timor-Leste, to act as an “Easter egg” or bonus component. Although not politically affiliated or an activist, Tiu Apati’s participation was vital to attract mass participation and broaden awareness.

The music video Hakoi Lia Hoax not only launched online on Facebook and YouTube, but also on TVE Entertainment (a local TV channel), accumulating more than 35k views across all platforms. Responses to the video on Facebook and YouTube indicated it was well-received, with comments including calls to “get the vaccine to overcome Covid-19,” and “bury the hoax!”

The project is ongoing, with the team now translating the infographic and music video into English to further raise awareness. They are also working on local and international media articles to introduce their project and educate the public on combating Covid-19 disinformation.

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