Combating the disinfodemic: Working for truth in the time of COVID-19

COVID-19 has led to a parallel pandemic of disinformation that directly impacts lives and livelihoods around the world. Falsehoods and misinformation have proven deadly and sowed confusion about life-saving personal and policy choices. 

To #ShareKnowledge, UNESCO has published two policy briefs offering critical insights into the fast-growing COVID-19-related disinformation that is impeding access to trustworthy sources and reliable information. 

The impacts of COVID-19 disinformation are more deadly than disinformation about other subjects, such as politics and democracy. That is why this research, in line with UNESCO’s role as a laboratory of ideas, coins the term disinfodemic to describe the problem.

DISINFODEMIC: Deciphering COVID-19 disinformation 

To make sense of the COVID-19 disinfodemic, consider its opposite – information. If information is empowering, then disinformation is disempowering. Access to verifiable, reliable information makes the right to freedom of expression meaningful. A disinfodemic works diametrically against this right during a pandemic. UNESCO Policy Brief 1 assesses 9 types of coronavirus disinformation, four format modes, and it identifies 10 categories of response being mobilised - often with freedom of expression implications - around the world.

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DISINFODEMIC: Dissecting responses to COVID-19 disinformation 

Policy Brief 2 critically analyses 10 types of response to the viral spread of COVID-19 disinformation. Responses target one or more of the four points of the disinformation life cycle: namely production, transmission, reception and reproduction. This brief assesses the responses that: work to cut the supply of production; that filter disinformation during transmission;  and help inoculate targets from reception; and prevent viral re-circulation. The assessment looks at these responses holistically and in relation to impact on the right to freedom of expression,  access to information and privacy. 

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The two policy briefs:

  • Analyse the types of viral disinformation helping to drive the pandemic;  
  • Investigate how individuals, the news media, internet communications companies, and governments are responding to contamination of the information ecosystem;
  • Offer rich food for thought about actions undertaken to combat the disinfodemic ; 
  • Assess the potential risks associated with restrictive measures;
  • And provide recommendations on how responses to the crisis can be improved to align to international human rights standards on access to information, freedom of expression and privacy.

UNESCO's Sector for Communication and Information publishes this research as part of its ongoing work to promote freedom of expression and universal access to information.

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.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has stated in relation to COVID-19 that “our enemy is also the growing surge of misinformation” As early as 2 February, the World Health Organization described a “massive infodemic” that is impeding access to trustworthy sources and reliable information.

View and download accompanying MP4 infographics, available under Open License CC BY SA 3.0 IGO.

“The policy briefs are available in Open Access under the Creative Commons ByAttribution ShareAlike 3.0 IGO (CC BY SA 3.0 IGO).”