Field reflections: Collecting Qualitative Data on Information Disorder.

Image: Digital Literacy Training in Monaragala District, Sri Lanka

Isuru Samaratunga

A survey by LIRNEasia revealed that approximately 1.1 million individuals in Sri Lanka accessed the internet for the first time between 2020 and 2021, with 61% attributing their new online presence to ‘needs that emerged during COVID-19′, such as work and education requirements. The survey further indicated that, at the onset of the pandemic, 76% of these families had an operational internet connection, and in those households, 90% of the children were able to utilize educational services provided online.  Majority of these children started using the internet for the very first time during the pandemic – and moves straight into intense use of the internet for their education, with little training on digital safety, civics, or media literacy.  Subsequent reporting in popular media has seen parents express deep concerns about the level of “addiction” to digital media, especially mobile phones and internet, among children, even after the pandemic.

As part of a larger umbrella of research around how media eco systems work and how to counter the information disorder, LIRNEasia was able to observe some of the consequences of the rapid increase in the number of children connecting to the internet for the first time.  We were exploring whether one specific type of intervention – digital literacy training – was able to mitigate some of the harms.

The qualitative research aimed to study the impact of digital literacy on adolescents’ resilience to the information disorder. It had a quasi-experimental design, in that there was a treatment group and a control group and both groups were assessed for their level of digital literacy.The treatment group then attended an interactive training session conducted by Sarvodaya Fusion, part of Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest community-based organization.  Sarvodaya Fusion’s training aims to improve students’ digital literacy overall, with specific content aimed at increasing the ability to identify misinformation and enhance their digital literacy skills. Focus group discussions with adolescents and one on one interviews with their parents were conducted before and after the training sessions, with follow-up interviews planned for six months and a year to provide insights into the long-term efficacy of the digital literacy programs.  The control group was interviewed but did not go through a training program.

The research encompassed a diverse demographic, including various ethnicities and sectors such as urban, rural, and estate.

The discussions with adolescents and parents revealed that misinformation related to education is a prominent phenomenon. As the previous LIRNEasia survey showed, over a million individuals accessed the internet for the first time from 2020 to 2021, with education being one of the primary reasons for their new online presence. In this context, children use the internet to search for information and network.

Research participants mentioned that students use the internet to write assignments in local languages, explore facts introduced by their teachers, and interact with fellow students.

For example, a 12-year-old respondent from the Colombo district mentioned how he was misled by information:

“I was told by the history teacher to find details about ancient cities, so I searched the web. Some websites give different ruling periods for kings compared to textbooks. Also, they [Websites] mention incorrect names of Wewa [a reservoir of water]”

Online interaction with fellow students often includes creating WhatsApp groups, the adolescents said. These groups are used not only to share educational materials but also other content, including misinformation.

LIRNEasia designed research protocols with greater attention to risk mitigation. Discussion moderators explained the nature of the research and the information that would be collected to obtain informed consent before the discussions began. However, on several occasions, parents inquired about the overall objective of the training sessions intended for adolescents. Some parents believed the sessions should discourage adolescents from using the internet, including social media. On these occasions, moderators had informal discussions with parents, explaining the safe use of the internet. Such informal discussions were particularly required with parents in the estate sector, where underprivileged communities live. It shows that even when standard protocols are followed to obtain consent from certain research participants, informal chats may be necessary to build trust in the research process.

LIRNEasia conducted training sessions, focus group discussions, and interviews with parents in local languages: Tamil and Sinhala. Information disorder is a concept that emerged in the global north, which speaks other languages. Therefore, LIRNEasia drafted data collection tools, including discussion and interview guides, with careful attention to local language terminology. Even though certain local language terms were technically accurate, pilot discussions to test the research tools revealed gaps in understanding certain terms. Communication gaps were immediately addressed prior to data collection. Measures to rectify such gaps included additional training for moderators, the use of examples when posing questions to research participants, and the use of follow-up questions to ensure accurate interpretation of the terminology by respondents.

Our reflections on the recent fieldwork have several implications for the forthcoming data analysis and the planning of future research projects. These include the need to contextualize data within the broader trend of increased internet usage among adolescents, the understanding that risk mitigation extends beyond formal procedures, and the critical importance of localizing research tools for studies on information disorder.