Unreliable and false information is spreading around the world to such an extent, that some commentators are now referring to the new avalanche of misinformation that’s accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic as a ‘disinfodemic’.
And fears are growing that this phenomenon is putting lives at risk, prompting some with symptoms to try unproven remedies in the hope of ‘curing’ themselves. UNESCO, the UN educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is leading efforts to counter falsehoods and promote the facts about the virus.
‘Barely an area left untouched by disinformation’
Well before the outbreak of the virus, UNESCO was issuing warnings of the impact that political, technological, economic, and social transformation has had on how we exchange information in recent years, referring to the “contamination” caused by some orchestrated misinformation campaigns, which pose a threat to fact-based journalism and, particularly during the current pandemic, people’s lives.
Guy Berger is the Director for Policies and Strategies regarding Communication and Information at UNESCO, and one of the agency’s lead officials on the subject of disinformation. In an interview with UN News, he explained that falsehoods related to all aspects of COVID-19, have become commonplace.
“There seems to be barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from the origin of the coronavirus, through to unproven prevention and ‘cures’, and encompassing responses by governments, companies, celebrities and others.”
He added that “in a time of high fears, uncertainties and unknowns, there is fertile ground for fabrications to flourish and grow. The big risk is that any single falsehood that gains traction can negate the significance of a body of true facts.
“When disinformation is repeated and amplified, including by influential people, the grave danger is that information which is based on truth, ends up having only marginal impact.”
Mythbusting, and the dangers of promoting unproven medicines
Because of the scale of the problem, the World Health Organization (WHO), which is leading the UN’s response to the pandemic, has added a “mythbusters” section to its online coronavirus advice pages. It refutes a staggering array of myths, including claims that drinking potent alcoholic drinks, exposure to high temperatures, or conversely, cold weather, can kill the virus.
Mr. Berger noted that some people believe, wrongly, that young people or those of African descent are immune (some disinformation has a racist, or xenophobic, tone), and that those in warm climates or countries where summer is on its way, do not need to worry too much. The likely consequence, he says, is complacency, which could fuel more premature deaths.
The UNESCO official also pointed to a more harmful example of disinformation: encouraging the taking of medication, approved for other purposes, but not yet clinically proven as being effective against COVID-19.
The good, the bad, and the gullible
Sadly, says Mr. Berger, some have capitalized on the pandemic, to spread disinformation for the purposes of advancing their own agendas: “The motives for spreading disinformation are many, and include political aims, self-promotion, and attracting attention as part of a business model. Those who do so, play on emotions, fears, prejudices and ignorance, and claim to bring meaning and certainty to a reality that is complex, challenging and fast-changing.”
But, he adds, not everyone responsible for spreading untruths is doing so maliciously. Well-intentioned people are also uncritically circulating dubious content. Whatever the reasons, he warns, the outcome is the same: “These different motives require different responses, but we should not lose sight of the fact that, irrespective of intention, the effect of sharing falsehoods is to disinform and disempower the public, with deadly potential.”
Supplying and demanding the truth
Against this, what can be done to ensure that truthful, helpful and potentially life-saving information gains wider prominence? UNESCO’s answer, says Mr. Berger, is to improve the supply of truthful information, and ensure that the demand is met: “We are underlining that governments, in order to counter rumours, should be more transparent, and proactively disclose more data, in line with Right to Information laws and policies. Access to information from official sources is very important for credibility in this crisis.”
“However, this is not a substitute for information supplied by the news media, so we are also intensifying our efforts to persuade authorities to see free and professional journalism as an ally in the fight against disinformation, especially because the news media works openly in the public sphere, whereas much disinformation is under-the-radar, on social messaging apps.”
UNESCO, continued Mr. Berger, is particularly urging governments “not to impose restrictions on freedom of expression that can harm the essential role of an independent press, but to recognise journalism as a power against disinformation even when it publicises verified information and informed opinion that annoys those in power. There is a strong case to be made that the media deserves to be recognised and supported by governments as an essential service at this time.”
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To satisfy the demand for authoritative facts, UNESCO is circulating as much reliable public health information as possible, via the media, channels, in partnership with agencies like WHO.
UNESCO is also working to help people become more critical of what is being presented to them online and elsewhere, as fact, so that they are less likely to believe, and spread, falsehoods. The agency is using the hashtags #ThinkBeforeSharing, #ThinkBeforeClicking, and #ShareKnowledge, and promoting the view that the rights to freedom of expression and access to information are the best remedies to the dangers of disinformation.
These rights, says Mr. Berger, “enable governments and the public to take evidence-based decisions about reality, and to put in place responses that are founded on both science and human rights values, and which can get us through the pandemic in the best way.”