The European Neighbourhood Council (ENC) in cooperation with Internews, released its new study: “Socio-economic Impact of COVID-19 and Media Consumption among Vulnerable Communities in Central Asia”. The report is part of the “Strengthening Resilience to Radicalisation and Disinformation in Central Asia through Independent Media (Phase II)” project, produced with the financial support of the European Union and implemented by Internews.
The authors, Samuel Doveri Vesterbye, ENC Managing Director, Andreas Marazis, ENC Head of Research for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and Shairbek Dzhuraev, co-founder and president of Crossroads Central Asia, examined the way vulnerable communities use different kinds of media in Central Asia, with a specific focus on social media. The research aimed at determining the information needs of labour migrants and their families, refugees, stateless people and ethnic minorities, as well as rural populations, youth, minorities and marginalised groups affected by the COVID-19 pandemic across Central Asia.
Due to the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, the study adopted a tailor-made and rapid online analysis methodology based on a quantitative data survey of approximately 2,000 respondents across vulnerable communities in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, as well as 500 qualitative semi-structured in-depth interviews with all three vulnerable communities and 120 “elite” interviews with content producers (journalists and bloggers) across Central Asia. The iterative mixed methods research was used to develop statistically comparable inferences on a regional and national level while providing supporting data to verify the quantitative results in comparison with more detailed qualitative interviews. This method takes advantage of large-scale empirical results, while allowing for qualitative testing of results through in-depth answers from vulnerable community interviews and content producers.
Firstly, the findings reveal an important impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on socio-economic conditions. Refugees and stateless persons, ethnic minorities and labour migrants face extremely high levels of socio-economic impacts as a result of COVID-19. This can be best understood through the shifting levels of employment, income and uncertainty: during the quarantine period, 48% of refugees and stateless persons did not work, while 13% had undetermined labour status across Central Asia. As a result, only 39% of refugees and stateless persons had employment status during the quarantine period.
Reported employment status of ethnic minorities in Central Asia during the quarantine period
The negative effects of COVID-19 are further amplified once subdivisions of vulnerability are introduced, including gender, urban-rural divisions, socio-economic status and age brackets. In general, 20% more women reported unemployment compared to men, particularly the number of female labour migrants with uncertain work status increased by 12% during COVID-19. In Tajikistan, only 25% of female labour migrants reported being employed.
In-depth interviews with vulnerable communities confirmed the important economic impact of the pandemic as many respondents lost their jobs, either temporarily or permanently. Growing food prices also posed a significant problem. The economic impact of the pandemic has been most acutely felt by labour migrants. The group included Central Asians who had worked outside of the country before the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to closed businesses and rising prices, labour migrants faced the hurdle of closed borders, which largely prevented them from returning to host countries such as Russia, South Korea and other labour destinations. These interviews also highlight other impacts related to COVID-19, including concerns about mental health and social relations.
Interviews with content producers revealed that the crisis triggered a reported increase in the interaction between content producers and audiences through social media, including citizens’ feedback and interaction through phone calls to newsrooms. The purpose was reported to be either to request information with regards to COVID-19 socio-economic support and/or to raise awareness about their needs and challenges through personal stories.
Secondly, the study shows the evolving trends of media consumption across Central Asia. Across Central Asia, 57% of stateless persons report that television is their main source of information, whereas 43% use social media, 20% online news media and blogs, and 18% instant messaging applications to access information and news. Only 5% gain information through relatives, religious figures or friends, while 4% listen to the radio and 1% read newspapers. The high reliance amongst all target groups on online media (social media and instant messaging applications) and television, in contrast with people-to-people contact and newspapers or radio is very indicative that vulnerable communities are equally impacted by the changing digital media landscape. Television remains popular among elderly people whereas youth rely on online media, including social media and instant messaging applications to access information. Still, the widespread and growing use of online media is highlighted repeatedly across each target group, indicating a shift towards mobile friendly news content. Radio, newspapers and people-to-people information exchanges remain limited. Social media outlets like Instagram and Vkontakte (especially for refugees and stateless persons and ethnic minorities) and instant messaging applications such as Telegram (Uzbekistan) and WhatsApp (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) hold the lion’s share among all target groups.
Reported main source of information for labour migrants in Central Asia
Regarding consumption, the study reported that people were primarily interested in news about their country of residence or their local community, but a lack of interest towards news from Russia and decreasing interest for COVID-19-related news.
Reported type of information received among refugees and stateless persons in Central Asia
High level of Internet restrictions on information access were also reported among vulnerable communities, which can correlate sometimes with Internet access, depending on connection strength, but also blocked websites and censorship imposed by government. Thirty-six percent of refugees and stateless persons reported Internet restrictions, while the figure for ethnic minorities in Tajikistan is 50% and 56% in Kazakhstan.
It is also noteworthy to notice that both the quantitative data and the in-depth interviews highlight a linguistic gap, especially in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, with Russian being the lingua franca.
Thirdly, the findings show different impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on media consumption. The most noticeable trend is an increased consumption of news as Central Asians heavily relied on news updates for information about health instructions, contagion statistics and new government measures. Both consumers and producers of media content reported a significant hike in news related to COVID-19, followed by a gradual disengagement.
The level of trust is directly linked to the type of media consumers are using. There is a strong tendency to consider online media as a source of fake news. On the other side, a similarly large group of respondents distrust television and radio, primarily because these two types of media are associated with government control. A significant group is also occupied by respondents who consider “conventional” online media, such as established news websites, as more trustworthy than both traditional media and social networks and messaging services.
All target groups reported high levels of trust in Internet information during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among ethnic minorities, the level of trust in Internet information was highest in Uzbekistan at 55% and lowest in Kazakhstan at 41%. Interestingly, ethnic minorities in Kazakhstan (25%) and Uzbekistan (23%) report high levels of uncertainty. The trend is slightly different among labour migrants, as the average level of trust in Internet information during COVID-19 across the region is generally higher.
Reported level of trust in Internet information among labour migrants in Central Asia
On the issue of fake news proliferation, while there is a broad recognition of the problem among consumers and producers of media, there is no consensus on what makes news “fake” and how to best distinguish between false and accurate information. Content producers are well aware of techniques, such as fact-checking or cross-checking information. Responses from consumers, however, suggest that the above techniques, while necessary, are far from sufficient as false information regularly makes its way through different media outlets, including online messaging services and social media that are difficult to oversee compared to websites, television or newspapers.
Finally, the report gives specific recommendations to develop concrete and policy-implemented methods to ensure access to high-quality and trustable information on COVID-19 and help minimize risk of disinformation of vulnerable communities.
Recommendations are focused on the different actors involved in Central Asia including non-governmental organisations in Central Asia, which could for example act as intermediaries among researchers/journalists and vulnerable communities to builds trust and increases exchanges about their needs and challenges, and government of Central Asian states, which can improve their communication strategy on informing the population on COVID-19, with a particular focus on raising popular trust in the government information.
Recommendations are also given for the international donor community and the EU, for example to provide support to both government and civil society in their efforts to improve media and information access, while coordinating the COVID-19-related assistance and transparency between the biggest donor agencies (United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank and others), as well as for content producers, which could consider producing content in languages other than Russian and the national language.
Find below the ENC Research (English version) including the Executive Summary and the Infographics as separate documents. A Russian version of the report will be available at a later date.