UNESCO has published two policy briefs that assess the COVID-19 ‘disinfodemic’ of falsehoods, fabrications and misinformation that have sowed confusion about life-saving personal and policy choices, impacting nearly every person on the planet and the global economy.
COVID-19 has spawned a range of disinformation types and responses, created by many different actors. The Policy Briefs assess nine types of coronavirus disinformation across four format modes, and identify ten categories of responses being mobilized, often with implications on freedom of expression, around the world. Disinformation is disempowering, by working diametrically against access to verifiable and reliable information that makes the right to freedom of expression meaningful.
UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for “countering the scourge of misinformation - a poison putting more lives at risk.”1 Early in the crisis, on the 2nd of February 2020, the World Health Organization described the “massive infodemic”2 impeding access to trustworthy sources and reliable information.
The policy briefs invite UNESCO Member States, Internet communications companies, news publishers, service providers and regulators, journalists, civil society organisations and other key stakeholders to help “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 disinfodemic. The focus is on four goals designed to:
- Effectively contain and counter dangerous falsehoods caused by misinformation and disinformation;
- Assist UNESCO Member States to align their disinfodemic responses to international human rights standards on freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy;
- Empower citizens through media and information literacy skills;
- Support quality independent journalism to provide verifiable and reliable information.
As the disinfodemic has helped to accelerate the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across borders, a global consensus could emerge on the need for multi-stakeholder cooperation to contain the viral risks of disinformation.
The UNESCO policy briefs, authored by Dr. Julie Posetti of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), and Professor Kalina Bontcheva of the University of Sheffield (UK), assess opportunities, assumptions and impacts of the disinfodemic, and offer insights for responses that can be comprehensive, effective and aligned to internationally agreed human rights norms.
The Policy Briefs propose possible solutions for tackling the COVID-19 disinfodemic, with a focus on new opportunities:
- For identification, monitoring and investigation of disinformation and the networks that propel it, along with normative, educational and credibility-labeling steps;
- For “sunset” clauses on emergency provisions that weaken and may normalize infringements on privacy, freedom of expression, access to information and other human rights norms;
- For internet communications companies to put multi-stakeholder engagement into top gear, demonstrating a goodwill to improve policy and practices in support of access to quality information, including independent journalism, transparency on their controls of content, and redress mechanisms;
- For governments, internet communications companies and other donors to support core funding for independent news media and fact checking efforts, with “no strings attached”;
- For policy makers and institutions to promote open data that contain provisions and due safeguards for privacy, especially with reference to surveillance and health data gathering;
- For states to commit to transparency on strategies to combat the pandemic and recover from it, including public spending on pandemics and economic recovery plans, as a means to counter false information; and
- For internet communications companies to monitor and report on automated algorithmic responses to combat the disinfodemic, while addressing automation errors in the absence of human content moderators and the dilution of a robust appeal and correction method during the crisis.
These UNESCO policy briefs were 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 policy briefs are available in Open Access under the Creative Commons ByAttribution ShareAlike 3.0 IGO (CC BY SA 3.0 IGO).