Disinfodemic: Sources and Targets of COVID-19 Disinformation

social media iconsAs the spread of COVID-19 continues to dominate global news sources, it is becoming clear that a parallel pandemic of mis- and disinformation has begun to erode public understanding of the crisis. In addressing this growing threat, the World Health Organization (WHO) described the disinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic as a “massive infodemic” and a major driver of the pandemic itself. Adding to this sentiment, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) suggested that “the impacts of COVID-19 disinformation are more deadly than disinformation about other subjects, such as politics and democracy.”

To provide a better understanding of the means and objectives of COVID-19 disinfodemic, UNESCO published two Policy Briefs offering an evaluation of disinformation efforts. Policy Brief 1 assesses different types of coronavirus disinformation and identifies types of responses that are being used around the world to combat such practices. Policy Brief 2 looks further into disinformation responses in relation to rights of freedom of expression, information access, and privacy.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) offers an additional insight into disinformation campaigns in the most recent report, “Types, Sources, and Claims of COVID-19 Misinformation.” In this report, the authors utilize a sample of fact-checks to dissect social media claims about the virus and pandemic. Significantly, the authors present five key findings, including:

  • massive growth in fact-checking about COVID-19 online;
  • great proportion of misinformation involves reconfiguration of true information, with only a small percentage of content being completely fabricated;
  • misinformation content moves equally from top-down (high-level politicians, celebrities) and bottom-up (from a broader public);
  • most common misinformation claims concern COVID-19 related actions and response from public authorities;
  • social media platforms have taken only limited steps in responding to misinformation.

Furthermore, RISJ released an additional report, “Navigating the Infodemic,” that surveys data across countries to understand the main sources of news and information about COVID-19, the public perception of news trustworthiness and misinformation content, as well as the general levels of public knowledge of and responses to the crisis.

To illustrate some of the content movement surrounding COVID-19 across different political and interest groups, Graphika released a report that identifies online conversations around the pandemic. The report provides a visual representation of network maps that generate COVID-19 mis- and disinformation. In particular, Graphika identifies the multipolar online communities that are actively involved in the conversation.

In response to this growing coronavirus disinfodemic, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) offers a Five-Point Plan outlining necessary actions to counter the threat:

  1. Create a fund for local journalism for gathering critical information;
  2. Encourage social media giants and public watchdogs to create a code of conduct to combat the spread of disinformation;
  3. Media platforms should increase user awareness by highlighting credible scientific information;
  4. Largest platform should assume responsibility for hosting harmful content; and
  5. Platform should adopt more ad transparency to counter dark-money funding of disinformation content.

For more information on related topics visit the HSDL Featured Topic on Pandemics and Epidemics and Social Media Use in Emergencies or view other resources related to disinformation. In addition, you can find more data in our new COVID-19 Special Collection. Please note that an HSDL login is required to view some of these resources.

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