Access to reliable and accurate information in COVID-19 pandemic: a matter of life and death

Bissera Zankova, Media 21

Undermining the right to health could generate serious risks for society and generations ahead. Disinformation represents a hazardous tool that can seriously jeopardise this right during the raging COVID-19 pandemic. In such grave crisis, disinformation can prove more toxic and perilous than ever. These arguments motivated UNESCO to coin the term “disinfodemic” and within its frame to clarify what types of international responses could be undertaken. UNESCO’s brief “Disinfodemic. Deciphering COVID 19 disinformation” systematises the main themes and dominant formats of COVID-19 disinformation and presents a range of measures against its deplorable outcomes. The analysis draws on research being conducted for the ITU-UNESCO Broadband Commission and UNESCO, to be published later in 2020, which addresses a wider range of disinformation subjects, types and responses. 

The booklet identifies four key disinfo demic format types: emotive narrative constructs and memes; fabricated websites and authoritative identities which report bogus cases of COVID-19; fraudulently altered or decontextualized images; disinformation campaigns which aim at stirring discord, nationalism and hostile geopolitical agendas.

The most frequent themes span a broad range of unproven or perverted information. These issues pertain to the origins and spread of the coronavirus disease, which are usually associated with the „Chinese virus“, 5G networks or chemical manufacturers, invalid statistics, misleading data about the economic and health impacts of the pandemic, discrediting of journalists and credible news outlets, dangerous disinformation about prevention, treatments and cures, panic and miracle stricken theories, politicization, theft of private data and false stories about celebrities being diagnosed with COVID-19

Instruments against disinfodemic merit a special focus. Among them social media monitoring and fact-checking are vital tools for measuring and understanding disinformation. According to UNESCO, between January and March 2020, over 1,500 COVID-19 related online falsehoods were fact-checked and debunked by an International Fact Checking Network (IFCN) initiative currently spanning 70+ countries. Fact-checking can be complemented by investigative exercises that dig deeper into the role of coordinated disinformation campaigns, including actors, degree and means of spread, financing and communities affected. 

Adopted laws or regulations, in a state of emergency due to the pandemic, provide for the prosecution of people with custodial sentences ranging up to five years for producing or circulating disinformation. Such provisions carry the risk of infringing freedom of expression rights more broadly and impairing democracy. Other kinds of policy responses include support for the news media. The World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) has identified state aid packages or tax exemptions for the media and media employers in Denmark, Belgium, Hungary and Italy. This kind of policy mechanism can be effective if relying on transparency, impartiality and independence. Among positive measures financial support for public service media is also being advocated as a vehicle encouraging high quality journalism. 

The national and international counter-disinformation campaigns count on the efforts of the World Health Organisation (WHO), UN, UNESCO and some governments which apply lists of verified debunks, rapid response units or WhatsApp chatbots. 

Users can be guided to access authoritative sources of public health information if the Internet communications companies apply curation of content. Such strategy can be helpful with a view of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression recommendations that demand safeguards to avoid the elimination of legitimate content in acts of ‘private censorship’. Applying automation and/or Artificial Intelligence (AI) in order to detect and limit the spread of disinformation can be an efficient means for combating disinformation, but it could also cause complications from a human rights perspective. In cases where automation errs, the dilution of the right to appeal (the lack of recourse to a human based review process) and the non-availability of a robust correction mechanism can imperil the users’ freedom of expression. FB, YouTube, Google and Twitter have already raised calls for caution in this respect. 

Ethical and normative responses include public censure of acts of disinformation, or resolutions aiming at thwarting these acts. Such statements could come from UN special rapporteurs, WHO officials, and political leaders and may have a strong impact on society. In addition, there have been examples of calls for reinforcing ethical conduct within journalists and the Internet communications companies.

Educational responses are aimed at promoting citizens’ media literacy based on critical thinking and digital verification skills. These approaches can address persons from an early age, such as the London School of Economics (LSE) guide to helping children navigate COVID-19 disinformation for families forced by the pandemic to homeschool their children. An initiative that strives to engage a broad number of media specialists to help inculcate media literacy among users was UNESCO crowdsourcing call for translations of its handbook “Journalism, ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation” into multiple new languages. The so called ‘signposting’ involves providing links to trustworthy sources of information and can effectively enhance educational efforts. For example, the Harvard Medical School identifies signals for reliable information sources and provides information on ways how to spot them. In addition, websites’ credibility is graded in order to help citizens quickly exclude unreliable websites.

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