New York – Governments must step up to lead the fight against a growing tide of false, inflammatory and misleading information that threatens to worsen the already severe impacts of the virus, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
By standing with their people to build a trusted relationship, national governments can mitigate the worst threats of misinformation, and in turn more loss of lives and livelihoods. UNDP is working closely with national institutions, as well as with media and civic actors, to help the fight against the spread of disinformation and misinformation, including supporting initiatives to use social media and websites to spread accurate information on COVID-19.
Advice about COVID-19 changes swiftly as medical understanding evolves, and this rapid evolution and the crippling impact on lives and livelihoods have led to a public thirst for information. Social media, informal news sources and fringe journalism have filled the void, often sowing fear, stigmatization, discrimination and confusion.
“The tsunami of fake cures, scapegoating, conspiracy theories, and false news stories that has flooded media in general and online platforms in particular has created a chaotic information environment — one that is not only undermining the effectiveness of public health measures, but also leading to real life violence and discrimination, confusion, fear and, arguably, long-term societal harm,” said UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner.
“Learning the lessons from HIV and Ebola, we must join forces to reject misinformation and stigma, anchoring our responses and advocacy in science, evidence, human rights and solidarity. While many actors bear a responsibility to counter misinformation, real progress will not be achieved without government leadership,” Steiner added.
Tools and tactics
The challenge today is that disinformation and misinformation tools and tactics are now literally at the fingertips of anyone who wants to co-opt COVID-19 for their own agenda, including government agencies. For example, researchers at the Bruno Kessler Foundation analysed 112 million public social media posts related to the pandemic and found that 40 per cent came from unreliable sources, and that almost 42 per cent of over 178 million tweets related to COVID-19 were by bots. Meanwhile, Reuters Institute found that around a third of social media users have reported seeing false or misleading information about the coronavirus, while research by Pew suggests that people who receive their news primarily through social media are more likely to be exposed to false content.
In Somalia, where some of the most influential voices are sheikhs and imams (religious leaders), UNDP joined with the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs for a three-day campaign in Mogadishu, led by Shekih Ali Dheere and other senior figures. Videos and social media graphics have reached around a million people on social media and are being used for TV and radio spots.
UNDP is also supporting Somalia’s Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs to set up a website that will provide guidelines for safe burial techniques and help mobilize the religious community to donate and deliver supplies like masks and soap and to host various information resources. UNDP set up the first Somali coronavirus website and partnered with Somalia’s biggest telecom provider, Hormuud, to deliver a recorded message on millions of phones with useful COVID-19 info and directions to the site.
In Lebanon, UNDP, in partnership with the Ministry of Information, WHO and UNICEF, launched a national campaign to counter the spread of false information, to reduce public vulnerability to information pollution and to build government capacity to counter it. A fact-checking site is being developed and an awareness campaign was launched to encourage the public to stop and think before sharing information.
In Guinea-Bissau, UNDP and the Ministry of Health supported the development of a fact-checking site (www.nobaschecker.org), which helps Lusophone citizens access trustworthy information on COVID-19. By building a wide community of fact-checking journalists, doctors, and economists from Guinea-Bissau and around the world, the site aims to fight disinformation around the pandemic by providing facts and verified news.
Transparency and collaboration
“The best weapons any government can deploy now are transparency, diplomacy and collaboration. Governments can lead by example, demonstrating how to use technology with integrity. They can negotiate with big tech companies, promote national digital literacy campaigns, sponsor fact-checking efforts and allow journalists to do their jobs. This investment will pay off many times over in the form of inclusive and informed societies and engaged citizens,” said Malin Herwig, Director, ai, of UNDP’s Oslo Governance Centre.
“There is very little to gain for governments that conceal information, suppress opinion or sow divisions around COVID-19. In the immediate future, it will lead to overwhelmed health systems, angry and befuddled citizens, overstretched security forces and deepening divisions and inequalities. In the long term, it will continue to erode democratic values and principles, human rights and social cohesion,” Herwig added.
Last month, the United Nations launched ‘Verified’, an initiative to combat the growing scourge of COVID-19 misinformation by increasing the volume and reach of trusted, accurate information. It will provide information around three themes: science – to save lives; solidarity – to promote local and global cooperation; and solutions – to advocate for support to impacted populations. It will also promote recovery packages that tackle the climate crisis and address the root causes of poverty, inequality and hunger. In partnership with UNDP, other UN agencies, UN country teams, influencers, civil society, business and media organizations, the initiative will distribute accurate content and work with social media platforms to root out hate and harmful assertions about COVID-19.