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UNESCO workshop at Internet Governance Forum highlights online Covid-19 ‘disinfodemic’ and multistakeholder trust


New insights into the problems of disinformation about COVID-19 were the reward for participants and attendees alike, at a webinar convened by UNESCO and the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) as part of the 15th Session of the Internet Governance Forum on 13 November.

Discussing the deadly risks of disinformation during a pandemic and the need for trust and transparency was a multi-stakeholder group of experts. They represented thought leaders who are associated with the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Center For Journalists (ICFJ), the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), First Draft News, EUTELSAT IGO, the 5Rights Foundation and Twitter.

Julie Posetti, Global Director of Research at the ICFJ, stressed the need to address disinformation at the source, “a problem made more difficult by the fact that the main sources of COVID-19 disinformation include populist, divisive political actors who continue to politicize the pandemic.”

She presented the types of COVID-19 disinformation outlined in UNESCO’s two policy briefs on the subject. These were co-authored by Dr. Posetti and Prof. Kalina Bontcheva from the University of Sheffield, who were also the authors of the wider study Balancing Act: Countering Digital Disinformation while respecting Freedom of Expression.

In reference to the virality created by the internet communications companies whose platforms are major COVID-19 disinformation vectors, Dr. Posetti said that the onus for addressing disinformation distribution should be largely on these companies.

She also highlighted the need for more transparent and independent oversight of funding provided by the platforms to researchers and organizations dealing with disinformation. But she noted that collaboration was critical, as well as support for independent journalism as a “potential bulwark” against disinformation.   

Claire Wardle, co-founder of First Draft News, described the challenges faced by news media at a time when disinformation is frequently politicized or outright promoted by individuals in power. She welcomed “more actions in the platforms in the last three months than the last 10 years on one hand,” but urged that there needed to be “independent analysis” and oversight alongside the companies’ “marking their own homework”. 

Stephen Turner, Director of EU Public Policy at Twitter, described actions by Twitter to tackle disinformation and harmful content, as well as partnerships with international organizations to improve information literacy. Policy updates were designed based on “how people see, engage, and share content” on the platform, all the while offering transparency about these decisions, he said.

Mr. Turner called for a more extensive consultation process on the issue: “We need more people at the table, more ideas, and more solutions; we need to find a way to build that long-term game into our approach. We want to ensure that there continues to be a free and cooperative flow of information.”

Tina Purnat, Technical Officer for Digital Health Technologies at the WHO, described the ways in which WHO has acted to address disinformation, in order to avert risk-taking behaviors. “We have to foster more access to high quality health information and at the same time slow the spread of disinformation” she said. “We should be thinking: what is the online equivalent of the two-meter social distance?”

Beeban Kidron, Chair of the 5Rights Foundation and member of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, expressed her concern that children and teenagers are largely forgotten in the disinformation debate, despite the fact that disinformation has a devastating impact on their wellbeing and information literacy. “If online companies are lending their network effect to disinformation that's creating a health crisis, a crisis in democracy, a crisis in childhood, and so on, you have to ask yourself whether they are fit for purpose,” she said. “We have to say that there's a new kid in town and we need that kid to grow up a little.”

Piotr Dmochowski-Lipski, who serves as Executive Secretary at EUTELSAT IGO and is a member of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, cautioned about policy-making and legislative attempts to address disinformation without incentivizing an improved information ecosystem. He said that “it is better to organize and promote positive stimuli and behavior, rather than only regulating and enforcing new laws which may be too hasty and enacted too soon”.

He argued for culturally specific understandings of disinformation types and responses and deeper research. The pandemic, he said, “is probably the first major crisis that the Internet is such a big part of -- it is not so much creating the crisis but sometimes accelerating it, sometimes helping to fight it”.

Cristina Tardáguila, Associate Director of the IFCN, described the need for more qualitative research on disinformation and noted that IFCN research shows that no country has been successful in stopping it. At the same time, “countries that have moved towards legislation have created other problems without solving misinformation. They have created censorship and internet shutdowns, and they have created fact checking organizations by government and arresting people.”

The recorded session is available in full at this link.

UNESCO seeks to address causes and consequences of disinformation surrounding COVID-19 as part of its mandate to promote freedom of information and freedom of expression on any medium and regardless of frontiers. UNESCO actions related to disinformation also include the translation into 20+ languages of the Handbook Journalism, fake news & disinformation, as well as the funding of a joint project with the European Union to minimize the impact of COVID-19 disinformation. With the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNESCO launched an online consultation to gather innovative evidence, experiences, and perspectives on the impact of disinformation.