Disinfodemic responses: how to assess their challenges and risks

Bissera Zankova, Media 21

UNESCO is one of the international organisations in the COVID-19 crisis that carry out continuous and in-depth research on disinformation issues. In addition to analysing the forms and impacts of false information in the time of pandemic, UNESCO clarifies the range of responses to this content in its brief titled “Disinfodemics, Dissecting responses to COVID-19 disinformation”. The brochure assesses the potential risks associated with restrictive measures and provides recommendations on how responses can be improved to align to international human rights standards on access to information, freedom of expression and privacy.

Responses to disinfodemic are grouped under four umbrella categories of modalities:

  • Monitoring and investigative responses (which contribute to identifying COVID-19 disinformation, debunking it, and exposing it);
  • Law and policy responses (which together represent governance of the media ecosystem);
  • Curation, technological and economic responses (which are relevant to the policies and practices of institutions mediating content);
  • Normative and ethical, educational and empowerment responses (which aim at enhancing the critical thinking of the audiences targeted by disinformation).

The first category of responses is focused on the monitoring of fast-spreading information, checking its correctness and identifying who published it and for what purpose. Fact-checkers comprise the central group implementing thеse approaches. In the infodemics, fact-checkers face a number of challenges. One of the difficulties they experience, at scale and with impact pertains to the effectiveness of fact-checking operations in all countries and languages. These conditions are necessary to be in place in order to enable societies to access the information needed and to ensure that the measures are both effective against false information, and are consistent with the international human rights standards.

Another problem is the impact of debunking information. It is widely known that fact checks tend to attract fewer user shares on social media than the viral disinformation they expose. Also, a valid concern is that drawing attention to falsehoods can help amplify them. Despite the practical obstacles due to the peculiarities of social media communication, the verification and debunking efforts remain a crucial means for surfacing truth, and for holding individuals, public figures, institutions and the news media accountable for inaccurate claims.

Journalists represent another group that has essential responsibilities in extraordinary circumstances such as the current pandemic.  Journalists, as key investigators of disinformation, are under particular stress stemming from the characteristics of COVID-19. This is because of the size and complexity of the reporting task, as well as revenue shortfalls that threaten newsroom payrolls and capacity for investigation, and the normal safety human and professional risks. The critical challenge here is that if the news industry is unsustainable, a major force for identifying and exposing disinformation will be lost, leaving a barren field for disinfodemic to proliferate.

Journalists are not only covering events but are also digging into issues around the different responses to the disinfodemic; thus promoting the policy debate about related topics of public interest. Through all this, the crisis is an opportunity for journalists to strengthen their skills and credibility, as well as increase the visibility of their role in times of emergency. Therefore freedom of expression and the liberty and status of journalists should be fully protected and guaranteed.

The second category of responses encompasses measures governing the production and distribution of COVID-19 disinformation. There is a grave risk that restrictive responses that curtail COVID-19 disinformation, could also impede free and quality journalism. By banning “fake news”, legal responses may intentionally or unintentionally censure critical journalism, if legal provisions are not in conformity with international standards. Heavy handed responses to disinformation, such as ‘fake news’ laws, could actually stifle journalistic work and diminish the contribution of other info players, engaged in vital research, investigation and storytelling about the pandemic.

Instead of circumscribing journalistic activities by raising impediments to the free circulation of information, support for independent journalists and public service media, as well as media literacy initiatives, can prove more efficient to ensuring the sustainability of journalism as a public good in the broader sense of the term. The Internet companies could also extend programmes designed to compensate news publishers. An example of such programmes is Facebook Journalism Project Community Network Grant Program. The project acknowledges that accurate and timely news coverage is critical to communities in trying times and provides financial support to help cover unexpected costs associated with coronavirus reporting for local newsrooms across the US and Canada.

Responses within the production and distribution of COVID-19 disinformation pertain to curation, technological and economic approaches that are relevant to the policies and practices of institutions mediating content. This modality of responses concentrates on actions within the primary institutions, such as news media, social media, social messaging and search services in the communications sphere. In some cases, these responses aim to reduce economic incentives for people seeking to make money out of COVID-19 disinformation, impacting on production; in other cases, responses pursue the reduction of transmission of such content. In addition to the measures undertaken against disinfodemic, the current pandemic is the appropriate time for internet communications companies to trigger transparency and accountability mechanisms, and embrace multi-stakeholder engagement. In this way, they can demonstrate their interest in improving their policies and practices to encourage quality information in the face of COVID-19 disinformation.

The fourth group of responses represents responses that strive to support the target audiences of COVID-19 disinformation campaigns. The goal is to prepare people to be active agents and resist the disinfodemic on their own. These measures work on the assumption that audience behaviours are influenced by norms, ethics, knowledge and skills. The main opportunity is not only to remind people of norms related to access to information and freedom of expression, and provide education to help them, but also to deepen and reinforce such knowledge and necessary skills in a complex and dynamic environment.2wwq

Conclusions define the ten types of responses to the disinfodemic as being complementary to each other and representing a holistic package of interventions. An admonition is raised that many initiatives of the disinfodemic responses now operate in the absence of empirical evidence. Understandably, it is too early for their underlying assumptions to be tested in terms of factual impacts, which include monitoring and evaluating for unintended effects with respect to the right to freedom of expression, access to information and privacy.

An interesting insight about responses is that there is gender-blindness in many of them. This fact poses the risk of missing the subtle differences in how false content often targets various people, as well as how these people respond to the content and counter measures. A persistent problem is that the vast bulk of the authoritative faces and voices of the COVID-19 crisis are still male, and there is a clear need for greater female inclusivity in responding to both the disinfo demic and the actual pandemic. The perceptions of children, elderly and people with disabilities also remain largely under represented.

Compiled by Media 21 from https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/disinfodemic_dissecting_responses_covid19_disinformation.pdf

The information is prepared by the team of the COMPACT project.

COMPACT is a Coordination and Support Action funded European Commission under framework Horizon 2020.

The objective of the COMPACT project is to increase awareness (including scientific, political, cultural, legal, economic and technical areas) of the latest technological discoveries among key stakeholders in the context of social media and convergence. The project will offer analyses and road maps of related initiatives. In addition, extensive research on policies and regulatory frameworks in media and content will be developed.

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