EJN’s First Rumor Tracking Activity Counters Misinformation about Air Pollution in Indonesia and India

women seated on the floor
EJN’s First Rumor Tracking Activity Counters Misinformation about Air Pollution in Indonesia and India

In 2021, Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) conducted an Information Ecosystem Assessment as part of the Clean Air Catalyst project, which yielded several insights into how communities in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Indore, India, seek out information about air pollution, and the gaps and barriers they encounter in accessing it. 

Now in its second year, the project team completed a rumor tracking activity, a first for EJN.  Through this activity, conducted over 4 months, project staff were able to gain a better understanding of the rumors and incorrect information on air pollution circulating within these target communities and then addressed these rumors by providing vulnerable groups accurate and science-based information on the causes – and environmental and health impacts – of poor air quality.  

Identifying locations and communities  

To begin, CAC project staff identified specific communities in Indore and Jakarta that were highly vulnerable to air pollution and had a high demand for air quality-related information.  

In Marunda, Jakarta, three priority groups were identified: 1) families with expectant mothers or children aged 0-59 months, 2) commuters (taxi drivers and those who used public transport), and 3) the elderly (people aged 59 and above and their families).   

In Indore, the Sanwer Road Industrial Area – a neighborhood that has several small- and medium-sized factories and where the air is visibly polluted – was selected. Here, the team identified 20 priority groups including many socially, economically, and sexually marginalized groups such as street vendors, street sweepers and the transgender community. 

Field observation 

Before embarking on any discussions about air quality, rumor tracking teams in both cities focused on building relationships with the selected communities and priority groups to earn their trust.  

The initial weeks of field observation were spent mapping local demographics, observing preferred mediums of communication, learning who the influential actors in these communities are, and identifying potential individuals who would participate in interviews and focus group discussions during the rumor gathering process. 

“Rumor tracking is not just about asking questions and getting answers: It’s about engaging and building a trusted bond with the community where they voluntarily share information because they believe that their voices matter,” said Stella Paul, EJN’s Health and Environment Project Officer.  

Rumor data collection  

In both Jakarta and Indore, the activity was comprised of five distinct phases: rumor data gathering, rumor analysis, response preparation, response sharing and impact evaluation.  

“Interviews and discussions were held in an informal setting allowing community members to feel comfortable and express their thoughts freely. When our team asked questions, they were open-ended,” said Paul.  

In Marunda, Jakarta, the rumor tracking team conducted 60 individual interviews and three focus group discussions. In the Sanwer Road Industrial Area, Indore, the rumor tracking team engaged with around 440 people through focus group discussions and individual interviews.  

Addressing rumors in Jakarta  

While tracking rumors in Jakarta, the team found that the community believed dust was the only sign of air pollution, and that rashes on their children’s skin were unrelated to air pollution.  

To counter these rumors, the team produced five information leaflets and one radio show. Through the leaflets, they provided information on the types of air pollution (including indoor sources such as cooking stoves) and the air pollution index, and consulted with CAC’s health experts and dermatologists in the city to address the communities’ concerns about the health impacts of air pollution. The leaflets included practical tips to minimize the inhalation of coal dust, and recommendations on how to deal with issues such as itching caused by coal dust. They also contained information on what community members could do to reduce air pollution at an individual level. All the information distributed via these leaflets was also collated into a handbook that was shared with the community. 

The team also collaborated with KBR Prime, an independent national radio news agency in Indonesia, to spread more awareness about what air pollution is and how to identify it. Azka Ghaida, Air Quality and Climate Research Analyst at the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Indonesia, appeared on the talk show on 23 August 2022 and spoke about the team’s findings with the talk show host.  

a woman poses with a leaflet
Rahmawati, a community member and a young mother, with the copy of the leaflet she received from the rumor tracking team in Marunda, Indonesia / Credit: EJN.

Addressing rumors in Indore  

During their initial engagement with the community in Indore, the team found that community members believed that since the city had clean roads, there was no air pollution. Many believed that Covid-19 was caused by air pollution and that inhaling polluted air for a long time makes one immune to its harmful effects.  

Most of the rumors were centered on health, and it was found that the majority of women were totally unaware of the negative impacts of air pollution and believed it wasn’t a serious issue. Some community health workers believed that air pollution had no impact on a child’s growth or general wellbeing.  

The Indore team’s data collection efforts revealed similarities with findings from Jakarta. Here too, people associated air pollution with smoke; when there is no visible smoke, the air quality was assumed to be fine.  

To address the rumor data they had gathered, the team produced four videos, which featured accurate information provided by Ajay Nagpure, Head, Air Quality, at WRI India and the project’s lead scientist. The videos clarified the health impacts of air pollution, and its various sources – from factories to transportation.  

The video responses – and a fifth video which compiled them all – were uploaded on YouTube and shared with community members through WhatsApp, which was found to be their most popular channel of communication. 

Community feedback 

Communities in both Jakarta and Indore shared positive feedback on the activity.  

people seated on the floor
In Marunda, Jakarta, residents said that the leaflets provided new and useful information about air pollution, its causes, and its health impacts / Credit: EJN. 

"The leaflets are easy to understand and very useful. I just found out that pollution is not just [produced by] coal. I also want to tell people at home so they can read it and understand what air pollution is,” said Suryanto, an elderly member of the Marunda flats community. 

In Indore, community members lauded the videos for successfully communicating complex information on air pollution in simple terms. They said the videos were a great tool for generating mass awareness.  

“I used to think that if smoke doesn’t enter my house, then I am safe because it’s not going to affect me. But after watching the videos, I have learned that I was wrong,” says Rekha Kashyap, a resident of Kumar Khadi in Sanwer Road. 

In Indore, the Clean Air Catalyst project has selected 10 journalists for story grants and, under the guidance of a mentor, they will report on air pollution in the city, and its effects on the economy and public health. In Jakarta, 12 journalists have been awarded grants and will start working on their stories soon.  

To learn more about the Clean Air Catalyst project, visit the EJN website.  

Banner image: EJN rumor tracking team interacts with women in target communities in Indore / Credit: EJN. 

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