New York, June 4, 2020 – 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 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.
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 percent came from unreliable sources, and that almost 42 percent 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.
On the ground in Europe and Central Asia, UNDP has contributed to nationally run efforts to combat coronavirus misinformation and disinformation, and reaching those in need with the right information mitigate the risk of the virus.
In Azerbaijan, UNDP and the government launched a WhatsApp bot to answer questions from the public about coronavirus, and to give prompt, reliable and official information 24 hours a day. The bot can cover up to 1 million users at the same time and answers any user request within less than a single second. All information is pulled directly from official government channels and double-checked by TABIB (the national Administration of Regional Medical Divisions).
UNDP Georgia worked to spread factual COVID-19 information among ethnic minorities (publishing and distributing leaflets not only in Georgia, but Armenia and Azerbaijan), rural communities (leaflets and posters), and breakaway regions to broadcast prevention messages, developed by the World Health Organization, multiple times daily on Abkhaz TV.
As part of a UN-Sweden human rights programme, UNDP Moldova conducted an informational campaign on COVID-19 and its human rights dimensions. The materials, reinforcing rights of vulnerable groups, including economic and social rights, were also distributed in the breakaway Transnistria region.
In Ukraine, UNDP mobilized their oblast SDG Coordinators to raise awareness of COVID-19 risk-reduction measures among local authorities, universities, and homeowners’ associations in 24 regions in Ukraine. Their network of sub-national civil society organization hubs has also been engaged in strengthening the communication campaign.
Prevention messaging was also geared to people with disabilities ensuring they can limit their risk to the spread of the virus. In Albania, hearing-impaired people can access a UNDP-established and maintained 24-hour hotline via WhatsApp while UNDP Uzbekistan supported the government’s information campaign by translating brochures and leaflets into braille and deploying a sign language presenter for a dedicated COVID-19 information channel.
“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 UN 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.
Lesley Wright; firstname.lastname@example.org