DISINFODEMIC: Deciphering COVID-19 disinformation

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UNESCO Policy brief #1

Authors: Julie Posetti and Kalina Bontcheva

Access to reliable and accurate information is critical at the best of times, but during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be a matter of life and death. What follows is a summary of a research-based policy brief available in full here.

1. Introduction

COVID-19 disinformation creates confusion about medical science with immediate impact on every person on the planet, and upon whole societies. It is more toxic and more deadly than disinformation about other subjects. That is why this policy brief coins the term disinfodemic.

The intent of the agent producing or sharing the inaccurate content can differentiate disinformation from misinformation. The production of content promising fake treatments for reasons of private profit is an example of disinformation. But it can be described as misinformation when the same content is believed to be true, and is then shared with the intention of being helpful.

In the case of COVID-19, the responses may vary according to the diverse motivations of those who are complicit in both disinformation and misinformation. For example, education is a partial remedy for misinformation, while stopping money-making from scams is one of the ways to reduce the supply of disinformation.

But the impact of the false content, irrespective of intentions, is potentially the same. In both cases, people are disempowered by being actively disinformed; hence the gravely serious impacts that can result.

It is this focus on the damaging effects of fabricated and misleading information, rather than the motivation for its creation and dissemination, that explains the broad use of the term disinformation in this policy brief, as well as its companion brief.

2. Why Access to Quality Information Matters

To make sense of the disinfodemic, consider its opposite – information as a foundation for knowledge. It is access to information, not disinformation, that makes the right to freedom of expression meaningful and helpful to societies. Verifiable, reliable information, such as that produced in science and professional journalism, is key to building what UNESCO calls “Knowledge Societies”. The disinfodemic works diametrically against this.

3. Human Rights Context

It is every person’s right to seek, receive and impart information. UNESCO and its partners work to protect and strengthen this right by:

  • Countering the contamination of disinformation,
  • Supporting independent, quality journalism,
  • Empowering people with Media and Information Literacy, and
  • Assisting Member States in meeting international standards on freedom of expression.

All four lines of action are essential for the right to health, one of the economic, social and cultural rights recognised by the international community. They are all essential if humanity is to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.10 on “public access to information and fundamental freedoms”.

This SDG target helps power other SDGs, and especially SDG 3 on “good health and wellbeing” that is so critical in these times.

4. The why, what and how of the COVID-19 disinfodemic

The disinfodemic often hides falsehoods among facts, and conceals itself in the clothes of familiar formats. It resorts to well-known methods - ranging from false or misleading memes and fake sources, through to trapping people into clicking on links connected to criminal phishing expeditions.

The result is that COVID-19 related disinformation affects content across the board, including that about the: origin, spread and incidence of the disease; symptoms and treatments; and responses from governments and other actors.

In contaminating public understanding of the pandemic and its effects, COVID-19 disinformation has harnessed a wide range of formats. Many have been honed in the context of anti-vaccination campaigns and political disinformation.

They frequently smuggle falsehoods into people’s consciousness by focusing on beliefs rather than reason, and feelings instead of deduction. They rely on prejudices, polarisation and identity politics, as well as credulity, cynicism and individuals’ search for simple sense-making in the face of great complexity and change.

Research underpinning these policy briefs identified four main disinfodemic format types:




The research also identified nine key themes in the disinfodemic:


Responses to the disinfodemic can be grouped in terms of their primary aims: identifying the problems; changing the content ecosystem; working on transmission; building capacity. These are discussed below.

5. Unpacking responses to the disinfodemic

Disinformation responses identified in this policy brief are categorised according to their aims, rather than in terms of the actors behind them (e.g. internet communications companies, governments, news media, NGOs). In total, 10 types of response are identified below, and grouped under four umbrella categories:

6. Conclusion

This policy brief has presented three typologies for understanding the disinfodemic:

  • Firstly, it offered four main format types, including the familiar modes of: highly emotive narrative constructs and memes; fabricated, fraudulently altered, or decontexualised images and videos; disinformation infiltrators and orchestrated campaigns; and bogus websites, data sets and sources.
  • Secondly, it identified nine key themes that range from false information about the origins of the virus, its incidence, symptoms and cures, through to political attacks on journalists.
  • Thirdly, a typology of responses to the disinfodemic was developed . To make sense of the interventions identified, the brief grouped these into 10 different classes grouped under four umbrella categories:
    • Monitoring and investigative responses (which contribute to identifying COVID-19 disinformation, debunking it, and exposing it)
    • Law and policy, and state-based ‘counterdisinfodemic’ responses (which together represent governance of the ecosystem)
    • Curation, technological, and economic responses (that are relevant to the policies and practices of institutions mediating content)
    • Normative and ethical; educational; empowerment and credibility responses (aimed especially at the audiences targeted by disinformation agents).

7. Methodology and credits

The findings presented here are the result of desk research carried out by the authors, with inputs provided by: Denis Teyssou (AFP), Clara Hanot (EU Disinfo Lab), Trisha Meyer (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Sam Gregory (Witness), and Diana Maynard (University of Sheffield). The dataset on which the findings are based consists of a sample of over 200 articles, policy briefs, and research reports. These collected sources have now been aggregated into a database that will be continuously updated, and which is publicly accessible here.

While the disinfodemic is fast-moving and vast in scale, this policy brief represents findings based on a snapshot of source materials contained in this database as of April 10th, 2020.

About the authors

Dr. Julie Posetti is the International Center for Journalists’ (ICFJ) Global Director of Research. She is also a senior researcher affiliated with the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM), and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Professor Kalina Bontcheva is a Professor in Computer Science at the University of Sheffield and a member of the University’s Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM).

This policy brief was supported by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), which is assisting journalists working on the frontlines of the disinfodemic around the world, to ensure accurate, trustworthy and verifiable public health information reaches communities everywhere.

This policy brief is available in Open Access under the Attribution- ShareAlike 3.0 IGO (CC-BY SA 3.0 IGO) license. By using the content of this publication, the users accept to be bound by the terms of use of the UNESCO Open Access Repository.

The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. The ideas and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.

Read the full PDF version of this policy brief, or PDF/ Mobile friendly versions of the companion Policy Brief #2 here