UNESCO Policy brief #2
Authors: Julie Posetti and Kalina Bontcheva
In a growing number of cases, the consequences of the disinformation accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic have proven fatal.
Meanwhile, journalists and medical personnel who expose disinformation are finding themselves the targets of disinformation-fuelled attacks.
When instrumentalised for political, racist, xenophobic, sexist, or other reasons, online disinformation about COVID-19 can fan polarisation and further hatreds - at a time when global unity is more needed than ever.
And some responses to the disinfodemic undermine legitimate freedom of expression - which is one of the best antidotes to false content.
What follows is a summary of a research-based policy brief, one of a pair commissioned by UNESCO, assessing the emerging responses to the prolific spread of disinformation associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of freedom of expression challenges.
The term adopted in this research to describe the falsehoods fuelling the pandemic and its impacts is disinfodemic - because of the huge ‘viral load’ of potentially deadly disinformation that is described by the UN Secretary General as a “poison”, and humanity’s other “enemy” in the COVID-19 crisis.
In publishing policy briefs on this topic, UNESCO highlights the challenges and opportunities associated with the urgent need to ‘flatten the curve’ of the disinfodemic, and to offer possible options for action.
2. The background
10 types of responses to the disinfodemic can be identified, grouped under four umbrella categories:
The four categories of responses to the disinfodemic are assessed below.
3. Dissecting responses to the disinfodemic that focus on identifying COVID-19 disinformation
This category of responses is concerned with monitoring fast-spreading information, checking its correctness, identifying who published it and why. These are all key to detecting manifestations of the disinfodemic, which is essential for any additional responses – be these legal, technical, ethical, educational or other kinds of interventions.
The volume and range of COVID-19 disinformation types make it difficult for fact-checking groups, journalists, and others fulfilling investigative functions, to monitor, report and draw public attention to all instances and dimensions of disinformation.
The challenge for fact-checkers is to operate effectively in all countries and languages, at scale and with impact.
Journalists, as key investigators of disinformation, are under particular stress as a result of COVID-19. This is because of the safety risks linked to covering the crisis, the size and complexity of the reporting task, new and growing revenue shortfalls causing job cuts and closures limiting capacity for investigations.
The mission-critical challenge is that the disinfodemic risks spreading unchecked if professional journalism - a major force for identifying and exposing disinformation - fails to survive.
The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for independent monitoring and identification responses to reaffirm the value of facts and science. Identification responses are key for monitoring the impacts on women, children, the elderly, minorities, migrants and other vulnerable citizens and communities.
The disinfodemic is also an opportunity to improve the resourcing of identification responses. While WhatsApp, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have pledged some funding to fact-checking organisations and local journalism, ongoing support throughout and beyond the entire pandemic is needed.
4. Responses governing the production and distribution of COVID-19 disinformation
This modality refers to responses that cover the use of political power to shape the wider information and content ecosystem in relation to the disinfodemic. These efforts are generally aimed at the production and transmission of disinformation (although some touch on consumption as well).
The interventions range from steps that criminalise COVID-19 disinformation at one end of the spectrum, through to increasing the supply of corrections to health-related falsehoods at the other, and less commonly, support for independent media.
There is a grave risk that restrictive responses to curtail COVID-19 disinformation could also hurt the role of free and quality journalism in its ability to counter the disinfodemic. Such responses can include measures that intentionally or unintentionally criminalise critical journalism, such as so called ‘fake news’ laws.
The pandemic has been described as a “media extinction event”. If left unmitigated, this challenge could kill off media enterprises with both short and long-term consequences for societies.
Finally, restrictive and punitive responses to the disinfodemic can overshadow the potential of using political power and policy to regulate through incentives and empowerment measures, so that various actors, including the news media, are able to strengthen their role against disinformation.
Policy and other responses in this category can play a key role in supporting the ‘supply side’ of information, as an antidote to disinformation. There is an opportunity to promote affordable broadband connectivity.
There is also a chance to lift or suspend internet shut-downs where these exist, remove arbitrary restrictions on expression, and promote Media and Information Literacy initiatives.
Authorities have an opportunity to combat disinformation through the promotion of active transparency measures. This includes releasing open data sources (e.g. on infection rates, mortality rates, recovery rates, equipment shortages etc - with due respect for individual privacy issues), and being transparent about public spending related to the pandemic and its impacts.
Internet communications companies (as with governments and donor organisations) have a role to play in using their private power to adopt policies to support the ecosystem of information by providing core funding for news media (and for fact-checking efforts).
5. Responses within the production and distribution of COVID-19 disinformation
This modality of responses focuses on actions within the primary institutions in the communications sphere - such as news media, social media, social messaging and search services. Most of these responses relate to curation (i.e. editing, managing and moderating) of content, which impacts on the presence and prominence of information versus disinformation.
In some cases, those designing these responses aim to reduce economic incentives for people seeking to make money out of COVID-19 disinformation, impacting on production; in other cases the responses are focused on reducing transmission of such content.
With most of these curatorial, technical and economic steps being largely in the hands of private actors, there are inconsistent and opaque decisions being made.
It is also unclear how Internet companies are monitoring the shift to greater automation, in terms of its effect on COVID-19 disinformation and information.
Media diversity is a valuable contribution to society, but some news publishers are captured by forces that are unduly politicising the crisis in ways that approach the level of disinformation. Others are falling into the trap of legitimising disinformation peddlers and their content by applying ‘false balance’ tests, mistakenly thinking that objectivity demands it.
This pandemic represents an appropriate and urgent opportunity for internet communications companies to put transparency, accountability mechanisms, and multi-stakeholder engagement into high gear.
The current crisis is also an opportunity for news publishers and journalists, to strengthen their service to the public through reinforced editorial independence, along with adherence to the highest standards of ethics and professionalism, with strong self-regulatory mechanisms.
6. Responses aimed at supporting the target audiences of COVID-19 disinformation campaigns
This modality of responses gathers together the interventions that seek to directly address the targets and receivers of disinformation, including online communities, the news media, and their audiences.
The category covers:
(i) normative interventions like resolutions and statements;
(ii) Media and Information Literacy development; and
(iii) content credibility labelling initiatives.
These responses aim to promote citizens' communications competence, which includes critical thinking and digital verification skills. There are also journalism education and training initiatives which recognise that journalists are both key responders to COVID-19 disinformation, as well as targets of it.
The magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis, and the urgency of responses to the disinfodemic, can lead to changes in what is accepted as normal, such as the suspension or weakening of human rights protections.
Many responses to the disinfodemic could become entrenched as new norms -for better or worse. It is therefore a challenge to ensure that all interventions are anchored within the legal and normative frameworks of human rights, such as freedom of expression (including access to information) and privacy.
Literacy and labelling responses are challenged by some evidence that many people choose to engage with erroneous information that reinforces their prejudices, in preference to engaging with accurate, credible content that may challenge them to shift their opinions.
The main opportunity is not only to reaffirm and remind people about norms around access to information and freedom of expression, and provide education and signals to help them, but to deepen and reinforce such knowledge, skills and cues in a complex and rapidly changing environment.
The crisis provides possibilities for the public to learn to approach content with scepticism, not cynicism, and to be empowered to make informed judgements about the disinfodemic and responses to it, including demanding transparency and accountability of those driving the responses.
The responses assessed in this policy brief each rest on a foundation of underlying assumptions, some of which may be open to question and demand checking. They may be absent in some cases, and in others they may serve to undermine the intended outcomes of the interventions.
- Impact assessment: Understandably, given the swift rollout of these responses, it is too early for their underlying assumptions to be tested in terms of actual impacts.
However, few actors appear to have made provision for independent oversight or impact assessment, including monitoring and evaluation for unintended effects such as any long-term undermining of the right to freedom of expression, including access to information, and privacy.
- Accountability: It is recognised that most responses are not only swiftly conceived, but are being rolled out under emergency conditions. However, accountability for some of the responses is not always obvious or transparent.
It is also apparent that many responses are not cognisant of international standards in terms of limitations to freedom of expression rights, in particular with regard to necessity and proportionality.
Taking stock of challenges and opportunities
- Time frame variations: Some responses - like new regulations - are geared towards immediate results. Others such as user empowerment and credibility labelling are more medium-term. Then, there are measures like developing critical Media and Information Literacy, which take longer to embed but which may have enduring consequences.
Others - like support measures for journalistic coverage of the crisis - are more time-specific.
- Contradictions: There are cases where one type of response can work against another. An example would be an imbalance resulting when there is over-emphasis on having top-down regulation, while at the same time neglecting the need for bottom-up empowerment.
- Gender: There is gender-blindness in many of the responses to COVID-19 disinformation. There is also the issue of women and girls’ access to information, which is often restricted in certain contexts, and threatened by the presence of domestic violence.
- Age demographics, particularly regarding children and the elderly, in response to the disinfodemic are also under-considered in many of the responses.
Disinformation thrives in the absence of verifiable, trustworthy information. Equally, it can also flourish amid high volumes of content when people may find it difficult to distinguish credible information from disinformation; between what is a verified fact and what is not.
It exploits people’s need for sense-making of complex developments, as well as their fears, hopes and identities.
This is why a multi-faceted approach is needed - one that also goes beyond the realm of communication and contested content, to include practical steps like social solidarity, along with effective medical and material support for the vulnerable in times of great change and enormous risk.
In this wider context, it is evident that freedom of expression, access to information and independent journalism - supported by open and affordable internet access - are not only fundamental human rights, but also essential parts of the arsenal against the disinfodemic.
It should be noted that the fight against COVID-19 disinformation is not a call to suppress the pluralism of information and opinion, nor to suppress vibrant policy debate. It is a fight for facts, because without evidence-based information for every person, a common victory against the COVID-19 pandemic will not be possible.
8. Options for action
On the basis of this research, 41 options for action were identified for UN agencies and Member States, civil society and the news media, law enforcement and the judiciary, internet communications companies and researchers. See the full set in DISINFODEMIC: Dissecting Responses to COVID-19 disinformation. Here is a sample:
- Increase its technical assistance to Member States to develop regulatory frameworks and policies, in line with international freedom of expression and privacy standards, to address the disinfodemic.
- As part of its mandate on freedom of expression, step up its work on the issue of disinformation in general, in partnership with other UN organisations and the range of actors engaged in this space.
- Increase its work in Media and Information Literacy and training of journalists as significant responses to the disinfodemic.
Other international institutions could:
- Encourage donors to invest specifically in countermeasures to COVID-19 disinformation that strengthen Media and Information Literacy, freedom of expression, quality independent journalism, and media development.
- Review and adapt their responses to the disinfodemic with a view to conformity with international human rights standards (notably freedom of expression, including access to information, and privacy rights), and to making provision for monitoring and evaluation.
- Increase transparency and proactive disclosure of official information and data, especially on COVID-19 related issues, and monitor this performance in line with the right to information and SDG indicator 16.10.2 that assesses the adoption and implementation of constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information.
- Promote affordable connectivity for all, in line with UNESCO’s concept of ‘Internet Universality’ and the four ROAM principles (Rights, Openness, Accessibility and Multi-stakeholder participation).
- Support investment in strengthening independent media, as well as public service media, as the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis threaten journalistic sustainability around the world.
- Earmark funding and support for Media and Information Literacy focused on combating the disinfodemic, especially through educational interventions targeting children, young people and older citizens.
- Ensure gender sensitivity in the leadership and public responses to both the pandemic and the disinfodemic in many settings
Law enforcement agencies and the judiciary could:
- Ensure that law enforcement officers are aware of protections afforded to journalistic actors and others who publish verifiable information in the public interest, in order to prevent arbitrary arrests and detentions
- Judicial operators could pay special attention to guaranteeing that international standards on freedom of expression and privacy are fully respected when reviewing cases concerning disinformation
Internet companies could:
- Make investments in media support with ‘no strings attached’, and with transparency, in order avoid the appearance of interventions that serve only as public relations exercises.
- Work to boost the visibility of credible news content and financially compensate news producers whose content benefits their businesses, especially as many news organisations have removed paywalls and other barriers to content access during the pandemic.
- Avoid overreliance on automation, especially for content moderation where there is a need to expand the human review process, and transparently monitor the impact of the pandemic-induced staff shortages with a view to solving redress issues.
- The media sector could:
- Redouble their efforts as professional frontline responders to the disinfodemic, through increased investment in fact-checking, debunking, disinformation investigations, continuing robust lines of questioning about responses to the pandemic and the disinfodemic, and by enhancing accountability and transparency with regard to political actors, states, institutions, and the corporate sector.
- Ensure preparedness of staff for safety risks associated with reporting on the disinfodemic e.g. increased security threats, online abuse, physical attacks, and including an emphasis on gender sensitivity.
9. 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 in coming months 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.
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 here.