Islamabad — Freedom of expression, access to information, and independent journalism are “essential parts of the arsenal” against coronavirus disinformation, according to two new policy briefs.
The briefs use the term “disinfodemic” – a combination of the words disinformation and pandemic – to describe the scope and impact of false information related to the coronavirus. The term indicates that coronavirus disinformation is more widespread, more toxic, and more deadly than disinformation on other subjects.
The first policy brief provides a typology to understand the coronavirus disinformation by identifying nine key themes and four types of formats being used to spread pandemic-related false messages around the world. It also outlines 10 types of emerging responses to the disinfodemic from fact-checkers, governments, media, and Internet companies.
Coronavirus disinformation is more widespread, more toxic, and more deadly than disinformation on other subjects.
Dr. Julie Posetti, a co-author of the policy briefs, said it is important to empower people trying to combat coronavirus disinformation by providing knowledge frameworks that improve the understanding of the issue.
“There is a ‘viral load’ of disinformation helping to fuel the pandemic,” Dr. Posetti, who is the Global Director of Research at ICFJ, told Digital Rights Monitor. “The best way to help ‘flatten that curve’ is to share knowledge that helps make it recognisable, aids efforts to surface it, and unpacks efforts to combat it, on a global scale.”
Maliha Shah, a National Project Officer for Communication and Information at UNESCO Islamabad, said the policy briefs provide much needed direction and a framework of action for responding to the disinfodemic.
“Much can be adopted from this framework for effective response in Pakistan,” Ms. Shah said.
The policy documents are co-authored by Dr. Posetti and Kalina Bontcheva, a professor at the University of Sheffield, who worked with a team of research collaborators to examine over 200 articles related to Covid-19 and false information.
The nine key themes of the disinfodemic found by the researchers include disinformation about the origins and spread of Covid-19, false claims about coronavirus treatment, misleading messages for political gain, false information about mortality rates and economic impact, and scams to steal private data.
The “discrediting of journalists and credible news outlets” is also identified as a theme of coronavirus disinformation worldwide.
Dr. Posetti said journalists work to fact-check falsehoods, investigate disinformation networks, and scrutinise government responses for transparency, accountability, and human rights protections.
“But journalists and journalism are also targets of the disinfodemic’s agents and amplifiers,” she said. “This means that they are frequently abused, harassed, and attacked both offline and online.”
The best way to help ‘flatten that curve’ is to share knowledge that helps make it recognisable, aids efforts to surface it, and unpacks efforts to combat it, on a global scale.- Dr. Julie Posetti
She said she would argue that the use of positions of political power to peddle disinformation or discredit credible journalism on coronavirus disinformation is among the “most dangerous aspects of the Covid-19 disinformation crisis”.
“Not only does this lead to undermining of accurate, reliable public health information that’s designed to save lives, it can also lead to deadly attacks on journalists by supporters of these political actors,” Dr. Posetti said.
She specifically highlighted the targeting of women journalists online.
“Women are often the most brutally attacked journalists online,” Dr. Posetti, who is leading an ongoing global study on online violence against women journalists, said. “And when they report on disinformation whether through fact-checking initiatives, investigations into disinformation networks or call officials out for peddling disinformation, they become even bigger targets of abuse.”
She said online attacks against women journalists can range from name calling to threats of sexual violence and murder.
“These are real threats with real impacts – physical, professional, and psychological,” Dr. Posetti said. “It is vital that we acknowledge the existence and impact of these threats, treat them seriously, and demand action from the Internet companies that facilitate them.”
But journalists should continue to do their “jobs as disinformation combatants during this grave threat to humanity” as long as it is safe to do so, she said.
“Quality, independent, (and) critical journalism can be a bulwark against the disinfodemic,” Dr. Posetti said. “Ethical journalists are essential defenders of facts, truth, and access to verifiable public health information shared in the public interest.”
She said solidarity, peer support, and efforts by news publishers and social media companies that take the problem seriously are vital to support independent journalism against the disinfodemic.
“(Equally vital) are political leaders who recognise the value of (an) open, transparent, and accountable government that respects media freedom and critical journalism,” Dr. Posetti said.
The researchers noted that Covid-19 disinformation has relied on a wide range of formats that were perfected in the past in the context of anti-vaccination campaigns and political disinformation. The disinfodemic messages target “beliefs rather than reason, and feelings instead of deduction” in their audience, according to one policy brief.
The four key formats identified are narratives that use strong emotional language, altered images and videos, fabricated and imposter websites, and organised disinformation campaigns.
“As we move from response to recovery (regarding coronavirus), media and information literacy skills will keep playing a role in addressing misuse of information, stigma, (and) politicisation and (will help with) promoting social cohesion."- Maliha Shah
Four umbrella categories were defined to group the 10 emerging responses to the disinfodemic around the world. These categories are: Responses related to identifying Covid-19 disinformation; Responses from State authorities to govern the production and distribution of Covid-19 disinformation; Responses from media and Internet companies; and Responses to support the target audiences of coronavirus disinformation campaigns.
The second policy brief urges governments to review and adapt their responses to the disinfodemic to conform with international human rights standards including freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy rights. It also recommends governments, Internet companies, and civil society organisations to support independent journalism and media and information literacy efforts focussed on combatting the disinfodemic.
Ms. Shah, the UNESCO Islamabad official, said media and information literacy is a relatively new concept for Pakistan but it will be crucial for citizens in the long term.
“As we move from response to recovery (regarding coronavirus), media and information literacy skills will keep playing a role in addressing misuse of information, stigma, (and) politicisation and (will help with) promoting social cohesion,” she said.
In order to address coronavirus disinformation in Pakistan, Ms. Shah said, UNESCO is currently developing a multilingual programme on media and information literacy for the youth.
“Since youth makes up more than 65 percent of the (Pakistani) population, we anticipate this as having a snow ball effect and for youth to become agents of change in their families and communities,” Ms. Shah said.
She said UNESCO is also aiming to compliment the training programme in Pakistan with radio broadcasts on media and information literacy for remote areas. It also intends to work with teachers as primary influencers for youth, she said.
The second policy brief also offers recommendations for the media sector. According to the brief, the media sector could respond to the crisis by increasing investment in fact-checking, reporting on human rights implications of pandemic responses, bringing innovation in the delivery formats of public health information, and ensuring physical safety of journalists covering the virus.
Dr. Posetti said she hoped the frameworks shared in the policy briefs will help journalists, civil society organisations, and others who are trying to hold disinformation agents and sources to account.
“We also hope it will aid their attempts to help societies to recognise and reject disinformation – however it manifests,” she said.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct title for Dr. Julie Posetti’s academic qualification. The first name of the policy briefs’ co-author has also been corrected. It is Kalina Bontcheva, not Karina. The errors are regretted.