*The following article is adapted from our opening remarks for the third Digital Cooperation webinar, jointly organized by ITU and the office of Under Secretary-General and Special Adviser Fabrizio Hochschild, on ‘The ‘Infodemic’ – misinformation and disinformation during COVID-19’, which was held on 29 April in strategic partnership with UNESCO and UNDP. It brought panellists from government and the private sector, including Google and Facebook, together to discuss efforts to counter disinformation and misinformation and to help people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance.
In times of crisis when confronted by new, inadequately understood threats, rumours and conspiracy theories are quickly born and quickly multiply.
In our history, disinformation and misinformation has played a chilling role in contributing to conflicts like the First and Second World Wars, the 1990s Balkans conflict, and in recent deadly natural disasters. This is not a new dynamic.
Our bigger problem today is the low cost, speed and scale at which disinformation can spread. The very networks that we rely on to stay adequately informed and connected during the COVID-19 pandemic are the same networks that are also being used to disseminating the misinformation spawned by the crisis. This is almost the first global pandemic in an era of social media and, hence, where false narratives are being spread at a hitherto unknown speed and scale.
The UN Secretary-General Guterres said that while our common enemy is COVID-19, another enemy is an “infodemic” of misinformation and disinformation. To overcome this, we need to urgently promote facts and science, hope and solidarity, over despair and division.
People should get accurate information from trust-worthy media outlets and reliable sources, such as the United Nations, WHO, and other established public health institutions. At the same time, this by itself is not enough to overcome the infodemic we are currently experiencing.
An Oxford study recently showed that anywhere from one-quarter to almost two-thirds of false and inaccurate COVID-19 related content exists on major social platforms.
This current crisis is an opportunity to learn how to create a technology equivalent of social distancing – let’s call it ‘digital distancing’ – to stop viral misinformation in its tracks.
The digital community has reacted rapidly to try to address the spread of misinformation during the crisis.
For example, Facebook has taken a range of actions to remove false misleading COVID-19 related posts and strengthened their team of fact-checkers. They are also partnering with the World Health Organization (WHO) to share reliable health updates. Twitter, Google and YouTube have also pledged to remove false information from their feeds, to remove links to fake news and to take down inaccurate videos.
However, with all the will in the world, taming this huge digital octopus has proven more challenging than we ever expected.
We should be able to tackle at source the production of misinformation and disinformation; refuse oxygen to the distribution of false information; and empower users through education to discern inaccurate or suspicious information.
As digital citizens, we need to act wisely and work together to combat false information. This is a critical time for us to enhance digital cooperation to get over this challenge.
Cooperation between different sectors are needed – we need social media companies to prevent mis/disinformation from spreading on their platforms; we need government and international organisations to find solutions that balance the critical needs of this moment, while still respecting and upholding individual human rights.
While we need better user education, we also need better moderation of content on platforms. The ease with which those who wish to cause harm can spread harmful content has never been easier.
The question that often comes up is: how do you contain the spread of disinformation when upholding the freedom of speech?
Traditional media in countries with a history of freedom of speech have long been negotiating that balance as they seek to uphold diversity of opinion and freedom of speech while also ensuring that content that is disseminated broadly is moderated and protective of public interests and safety. Getting the balance right is more difficult today with the instant – and global – reach of social media.
Finally, the issue of access to critical information in digital challenges must also be addressed. We know that digital networks can be an extraordinarily powerful force for good in rapidly disseminating accurate information across communities, especially in emergencies. But what about for the 3.6 billion who still lack access to the internet?
WHO, ITU and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are teaming up with telecom operators to try to address this issue by sharing health updates on COVID-19 via SMS to reach an estimated two billion people that are still using 2G phones.
Innovative uses of technology to fight the spread of misinformation are springing up across the world. In Rwanda, for example, drones are being used to broadcast public information to help keep communities safe. UNESCO has partnered with radio stations to make broadcast quality COVID-19 information freely available in multiple languages.
Where there is connectivity, it is important that it serves to disseminate content that is safe, helpful, and enriching.
This current crisis is an opportunity to learn how to create a technology equivalent of social distancing – let’s call it ‘digital distancing’ – to stop viral misinformation in its tracks, while at the same time harnessing the reach and ubiquity of technology to promote public health and safety.