Journalism’s critical role in fighting COVID-19 disinformation

COVID-19 has spawned a flood of potentially deadly mis- and disinformation that directly impacts lives and livelihoods around the world. UN Secretary General António Guterres has described this  as a “poison,” and humanity’s other new “enemy.” 

As part of the UN’s response to the crisis, we were commissioned to produce two new policy briefs published by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), with the support of ICFJ. The goal is to help the UN, governments, journalists, civil society and internet communications companies respond to the crisis — and to ensure that freedom of expression rights are not undercut in the process. This research highlights journalism’s critical role in fighting back.

What is the disinfodemic?

The term we have adopted to describe the falsehoods fuelling the pandemic is disinfodemic because of the huge viral load of potentially deadly disinformation. The disinfodemic often hides falsehoods amidst true information, and conceals itself in the clothes of familiar formats. It resorts to well-known distribution methods ranging from false or misleading memes and fake sources, through to trapping people into clicking on links connected to criminal phishing expeditions. It can be shared by individuals, organized groups, news media and official channels — either wittingly or unwittingly. 

To help navigate this crisis, we have identified and critically analyzed 10 different categories of responses to the disinfodemic, and made a range of recommendations for action (see part two of this ICFJ series). But to start, we mapped nine key themes and four main format types associated with the disinfodemic. 

Key themes of the disinfodemic

(1) Origins and spread of the coronavirus/COVID-19 

While scientists first identified cases of the novel coronavirus connected to an animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, there are many conspiracy theories that accuse other actors and causes. These extend from blaming 5G networks to chemical weapons manufacturers. A label like “Chinese virus” instead of neutral terminology inflates location into an adjective, in an historical echo of early pandemics that gave a biased meaning to a noun.

(2) Medical science: symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

This theme includes dangerous disinformation about immunity, prevention, treatments and cures. For example, a myriad of memes claim that drinking or gargling cow urine, hot water or salt water could prevent the infection reaching lungs. They cannot.

(3) False and misleading statistics 

In our research, we saw misrepresented and distorted data connected to the reported incidence of the disease and mortality rates.

(4) Impacts on society and the environment  

This theme in the disinfodemic ranges from panic-buying triggers and false information about lockdowns, to the supposed re-emergence of dolphins in Venetian canals.

(5) Economic impacts

This theme includes spreading false information about the economic and health impacts of the pandemic, suggestions that social isolation is not economically justified and even claims that COVID-19 is overall creating jobs.

(6) Politicization

One-sided and positively framed information is presented in an effort to negate the significance of facts that are inconvenient for certain actors in power. Other disinformation designed to mislead for political advantage includes equating COVID-19 with flu, making baseless claims about the likely length of the pandemic and assertions about the lack of availability of medical testing and equipment.

(7) Discrediting journalists and credible news outlets

This is a theme often associated with political disinformation, with unsupported accusations that certain news outlets are themselves peddling in disinformation. This behavior includes abuse levelled at journalists publicly, but it is also used by less visible disinformation campaigns to undermine trust in verified news produced in the public interest. Attacks on journalists in the time of COVID-19 have been associated with crackdowns on critical coverage of political actors and states.

(8) Content driven by fraudulent financial gain

This includes scams designed to steal people’s private data.

(9) Celebrity-focused disinformation

This includes false stories about actors being diagnosed with COVID-19.

The four main formats of COVID-19 disinformation

COVID-19 disinformation has harnessed a wide range of formats. Many have been honed in the context of anti-vaccination campaigns and political disinformation. These formats frequently smuggle falsehoods into people’s consciousness by focusing on beliefs rather than reason, and feelings instead of deduction. They rely on prejudices, polarization and identity politics, as well as credulity, cynicism and individuals’ search to make sense of great complexity and change. 

The contamination typically spreads in text, images, video, memes and sound. 

(1) Emotive narrative constructs and memes

While these formats often include elements of truth, it is mixed with strong emotional language, lies and/or incomplete information, and personal opinions. These formats are particularly hard to uncover on closed messaging apps.

(2) Fraudulently altered, fabricated or decontextualized images and videos

These are used to create confusion and generalized distrust and/or to evoke strong emotions through viral memes or false stories.

(3) Disinformation infiltrators and orchestrated campaigns 

These are aimed at sowing discord in online communities, advancing nationalism and geopolitical agendas, collecting personal health data and phishing, or gaining money from spam and advertisements for false cures. These formats may also include artificial amplification and antagonism by bots and trolls as part of organized disinformation campaigns.

(4) Fabricated websites and authoritative identities

These include false sources, polluted datasets and fake government or company websites, as well as other websites publishing seemingly plausible information in the genre of news stories (i.e. reporting bogus cases of COVID-19).

These are the main themes and format types of COVID-19 disinformation that our research identified. In part two of this series, we will identify ten types of responses to the disinfodemic emerging internationally, and we will analyze these with reference to significant freedom of expression challenges. We will also make a range of recommendations highlighting journalism’s critical role in the fight to defend truth. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the globe, independent journalism has never been more important. Access to reliable and accurate information is literally a matter of life and death. 

New research published by the UN and ICFJ today identifies quality journalism as a major force for identifying and exposing disinformation. And it finds that the ‘viral load’ of disinformation will only grow if journalism continues to suffer death blows inflicted by the pandemic.

In two reports, we argue that ensuring journalism survives the COVID-19 pandemic is a mission-critical challenge for the UN system, governments and others trying to fight what we term the disinfodemic. In the first report we identified nine different themes of the disinfodemic, and four typical formats. In the second report, we critically analyze ten methods of response to the crisis being deployed against COVID-19 disinformation around the world.

Many of the legal and policy steps being implemented are designed to defend public health. But while presented as ‘cures,’ some of these steps could actually hobble the work of journalists and others engaged in vital research, investigation and storytelling about the pandemic - and the disinfodemic that helps fuel it. 

Recommendations  for action

In recognition of the risks associated with the responses to the disinfodemic our research identified, we have made 40 recommendations for action aimed at the UN, governments, technology companies, the news media, civil society organizations, law enforcement agencies, and others. Here is a shortlist of 21 with a journalism focus*.

Governments could:

Recognize journalists as key workers and offer them the assistance and protection accordingly under national emergency conditions*

Review and adapt their responses to the disinfodemic to conform with internationally recognized freedom of expression, access to information and privacy rights

Increase transparency and pro-active disclosure of official information and data, especially on COVID-19 related issues

Support investment in strengthening independent journalism, 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

Work with internet communications companies to establish privacy-preserving, secure data exchanges and facilitate access to social media data for journalists, media and researchers, in order to enable thorough investigations, full transparency and secure preservation of historically-important social media data*

The media sector could:

Redouble their efforts as professional frontline responders to the disinfodemic, through increased investment in fact-checking, debunking, disinformation investigations and continuing robust lines of questioning about responses to the pandemic and the disinfodemic

Report on the human rights implications of responses to the pandemic, including those impacting freedom of expression, access to information and privacy rights

Consider mythbusting and investigative collaborations around COVID-19 disinformation with other news organizations and audiences - including internationally. Partnerships with member-based audiences can also be successful.

Push the boundaries of innovation in the context of newsroom shutdowns and staff shortages by: producing public health information in more broadly accessible and engaging formats, such as infographics, podcasts and moderated online forums with medical experts; and increasing reliance on user generated content (UGC) which has been subjected to rigorous fact-checking.

Ensure that experiences in a range of developing countries are not overlooked in coverage of the disinfodemic

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)

Internet communications companies could:

Intensify transparency about their responses to the disinfodemic (e.g. content takedowns), and provide more financial support to fact-checking networks and independent journalism (especially that focused on investigations targeting disinformation content and networks, and local news organizations which are particularly vulnerable in the crisis)

Make the sort of investments outlined above with ‘no strings attached,’ and with transparency, in order avoid the appearance of interventions that serve only as public relations exercises

Focus on curation to ensure that users can easily access journalism as verified information shared in the public interest - especially during the pandemic, but also in the aftermath

Work to boost the visibility of credible news content and financially compensate news producers whose content benefits their businesses, especially as many news organizations 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

Apply the lessons learned during the urgent response to the COVID-19 disinfodemic to political disinformation that threatens democracy internationally

Law enforcement agencies and the judiciary could:

Ensure that law enforcement officers are aware of privacy and freedom of expression protections afforded to journalistic actors and others who publish verifiable information in the public interest, in order to prevent arbitrary arrests and detentions during the pandemic

Judicial operators, particularly judges, could pay special attention when reviewing cases related to addressing measures to fight disinformation, guaranteeing that international standards on freedom of expression and privacy are fully respected 

Researchers could: 

Collaborate with journalists, news organizations and civil society groups on projects that help surface and combat disinformation, along with monitoring and assessment exercises focused on responses to the disinfodemic

Work toward developing new tools to assist journalists, news organizations and other verification professionals with efficient detection and analysis of disinformation, as well as with the crafting and effective promotion of debunks and authoritative information*  

Dr. Julie Posetti is ICFJ’s Global Research Director. She is also a senior researcher affiliated with the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) and the University of Oxford.

Prof. Kalina Bontcheva is Professor in Computer Science at the University of Sheffield and a member of CFOM.

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