International community against disinformation in the situation of COVID-19 pandemic
While the corona virus crisis is escalating, the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made the admonition that the world is not only immersed in a pandemic but is also facing “a dangerous epidemic of misinformation” about COVID-19. He announced a U.N. campaign based on scientific knowledge to counter what he called “a poison” that is putting lives at risk. The idea behind this campaign is to flood the Internet with facts and scholarly arguments and debunk a global “misinfo-demic” that is spreading harmful health advice, so called “snake-oil solutions,” falsehoods, and conspiracy theories. In addition, Guterres is urging social media organizations to do more to counter misinformation and to “root out hate and harmful assertions about COVID-19.” The U.N. Secretary-General stressed that “mutual respect and upholding human rights must be our compass in navigating this crisis.” The role of journalists and fact-checkers to analyse and debunk heaps of misleading stories and social media posts is crucial in this respect.
Of key importance in all crisis situations is trust in science and in institutions “grounded in responsive, responsible, evidence-based governance and leadership.” Because of the scale of the problem with medical disinformation, the World Health Organization (WHO) has added a “mythbusters” section to its online coronavirus advice pages. The section 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. To ensure that accurate information and advice is available and take steps to inform the public when inaccurate information is published is UNICEF’s statement from 9 March 2020 on misinformation about the coronavirus in which it declares publicly its intention to “actively take steps to provide accurate information about the virus by working with the World Health Organization, government authorities and online partners such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and TikTok.”
Technology such as AI is currently in use to counter corona virus disinformation. Publications stress that data science and AI can be effectively used to confront the disease. The AI contribution can be manifold in this direction, spanning the search for cure, knowledge sharing, tracking the spread of the virus, and assisting healthcare personnel as well as controlling population.
The EU has unconditionally declared the fight against disinformation a joint effort involving all European institutions. Despite the links to its chief bodies, the EC advises European citizens to also follow the EUvsDisinfo website. The EUvsDisinfo is the flagship project of the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force. The project was established in 2015 with the purpose to improve forecasting and to address and respond to the Russian Federation’s ongoing disinformation campaigns affecting the European Union, its Member States, and countries in the shared neighbourhood. The EUvsDisinfo’s weekly newsletter, the Disinformation Review, summarises the main pro-Kremlin disinformation trends observed across the disinfo cases collected weekly, and includes the latest news and analysis. It is available in English, Russian, and since October 2019 in German. Currently, the newsletter compares the cases on the coronavirus pandemic, published in a given period, and extracts and debunks the main disinformation ideas being distributed. Two of the most common narratives are that the US created the coronavirus and the EU together with the border-free Schengen area is failing to cope with the crisis and is disintegrating as a result. In particular, the narrative of failure and lack of EU solidarity is trending after the delivery of Russian aid to Italy and it can be encountered in 26 disinformation cases collected between January and March 2020. The narrative that the virus is being used as a weapon against China and its economy is emphasized in 24 cases. The rather creative notion that the whole coronavirus crisis is a secret plan of the global elite is present in 17 cases. The most malevolent message coming from all these cases is that authoritarian regimes are best at handling disasters. However, authoritarian regimes, which tend to control and manipulate information and to limit the freedom of doctors and scientists to engage in international cooperation, are often an obstacle to the timely detection and containment of epidemic outbreaks. A clear example is China’s deliberate cover-up of the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. The real way out of the coronavirus pandemic (and to future epidemic outbreaks) is not to revert to “closed societies” but to develop a global response and rely on broad collaboration.
It is worth referring to UNESCO’s experience against the background of all international efforts to combat disinformation, including racist or xenophobic disinformation. The position of the organisation is that governments, in order to counter rumours and lies, 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 crisis situations. In times of tension and difficulties, people should become more critical of that which is being presented to them online and elsewhere. UNESCO 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 enable governments and the public to make reasonable decisions and responses that are founded on both science and human rights values.
Compiled by Media 21 from