Disinformation kills. It poisons minds with COVID conspiracy theories and distrust of health experts.
It is worst in poor, rural communities where people do not have internet access to get the facts about COVID on their own. It is no surprise that poor, rural communities of color without internet access have some of the highest rates of COVID death. How can the spread of COVID disinformation in rural communities by conservative TV stations be countered? Is there a better way to message voters in remote areas?
Free internet. It empowers poor communities to get the facts on COVID. Access to online education. Searching for employment and housing. Making free phone calls without using up their own phone plan minutes. Health providers, community organizers and nonprofits can now reach these communities for a fraction of their current advertising costs.
This blog describes a pilot project in South Carolina to provide free internet access to marginalized rural communities - financially supported for by ads. The program is a collaboration between Black Voters Matter, Reclaim Our Vote and Democracy Labs. You'll also learn about 'news deserts' and tech innovations that slash the cost of WiFi hotspots.
"Control the free flow of information, because it plugs a potential channel of criticism. Turn the media into a propaganda machine. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owned nearly half the Italian media, encompassing national television channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines. Unsurprisingly, these outlets carefully managed Berlusconi's public image and shielded him from criticism." - Psychology Today
The internet upsets this scheme, because it allows people to access information directly - free from political filtering and propaganda. That's why authoritarian regimes tightly control internet usage.
Conservative groups have invested millions in purchasing rural newspapers and TV stations to manipulate viewers' opinions. "Sinclair Broadcasting is the largest owner of local television stations in the country, with 173 stations in 81 broadcast markets that stretch from coast to coast and just about everywhere in between. Sinclair has been spotlighted for injecting right-leaning coverage and commentary on national issues into its local broadcasts" according to the Chicago Tribune.
Sinclair COVID disinformation
"Jeffcoat provided her audience with dangerous misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, by now a regular occurrence on Sinclair’s airwaves. Jeffcoat and her guest -- a surgeon who also works as a senior fellow at the right-leaning Cato Institute -- specifically and falsely suggested that lockdowns are ineffective in slowing the spread of the coronavirus. They then called for the economy to reopen even as the U.S. was approaching 400,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths." - Media Matters
"Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Trump-aligned media corporation which operates hundreds of local television stations in the U.S., has abandoned its plan to air on dozens of stations this weekend a segment sharing a baseless conspiracy theory blaming Dr. Anthony Fauci for the coronavirus. The move followed widespread blowback over Sinclair’s decision broadcast the segment, in which medical researcher Dr. Judy Mikovits claims that Fauci made the virus and sent it to China." - MSN
"A 'news desert' is a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level." - U.S. News Deserts
South Carolina, for instance has many counties that are news deserts where Sinclair, conservative radio stations and newspapers are the only source of information. A lack of internet access prevents residents from finding information for themselves online. Click on this link to see how access to information is a good indicator of the poverty in a county and how it votes.
Free internet pilot program
The program adapts three business ideas to provide free internet access to poor communities:
- Registration to get WiFi access is widely used at cafes, hotels and airports
- TV and radio stations use revenue from commercials to cover their operating costs
- Marketing firms use detailed demographic information to target ads
The pilot program uses both stationary WiFi hotspots placed at community centers in the rural communities as well as mobile hotspots in cars that drive temporarily to different locations. Users can freely browse the internet, but are periodically shown messages and surveys that they are required to completed in order to stay online. This enables community organizers to develop a detailed profile on each person and target messages to them which match their personal profile.
This simulation shows the user interface with someone completing a basic questionnaire when first connecting to the WiFi hotspot. The user is shown public service messages about the need to get vaccinated and also asked to complete other surveys in order to improve their profile. This model requires the user to see a sponsor's message or fill out a survey in order to stay online, unlike with traditional mobile advertising where they may or may not respond to an ad.
Precise message targeting
This approach builds a detailed profile on every WiFi user that gets more refined as they answer more surveys. This allows community organizers to target their messages to both location and the individual's profile. This makes the approach much more cost-effective in reaching and communicating with target audiences. TV and radio advertising cannot provide this level of accuracy. Online advertising through Facebook and Google do not work when someone does not have internet access.
Individuals watch messages on the sponsored WiFi hotspot in exchange for free internet access. Just like we all suffer through commercials to watch TV programs.
The program provides internet access for about $5/month/user based on a hotspot that covers 40 simultaneous. It provides sponsors with the ability to deliver their messages (graphics, videos and surveys) to specific people based on their location and personal profile. Best of all, recipients have to watch the ad and complete the survey in order to stay online.
Lack of internet holds back poor, rural communities
Many rural counties in South Carolina are held back by lack of internet access which prevents them from searching for jobs, housing, online education and COVID information. This map of South Carolina shows the poverty level of a county indicated by a darker shade. These are typically communities of color, lacking internet access.
This map shows both county and tract information. It can be freely shared with this link https://arcg.is/10i0n5 or embedded in a website with this line of code: < iframe width="300" height="200" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" allowfullscreen src="https://arcg.is/1baW5v">
Takeaway: It's time to liberate people living in news deserts and held hostage by biased TV coverage spewing COVID disinformation. Learn more about the free Internet HotSpot program.