Opinion: Curing the world of the 'infodemic'

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From unfounded theories about microwaving your mail to kill COVID-19 to wild claims that the 5G mobile network is spreading the virus to fraudsters hawking fake cures on social media — incorrect information is sweeping across the world faster than the pandemic itself.

But this information is far from harmless. Fake remedies can injure or even kill people. And hatred has gone viral with an uncountable number of acts of prejudice and violence against vulnerable groups. There is therefore an urgent need for a global effort to ensure that science and facts triumph over ignorance and dishonesty.

At a time when the World Health Organization should be fully concentrated on leading the global efforts to tackle COVID-19, they are now grappling with a parallel battle — what they term an “infodemic.”

This is an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance. A sort of white noise.

Infodemics can hamper an effective public health response and create confusion and distrust among people. They feed into hate speech, dehumanizing language, and scapegoating narratives that are reinforcing exclusion and violence toward vulnerable groups — at a time when gender-based violence spiked as the world went into lockdown.

The international community needs to ensure that confronting the infodemic does not end as the pandemic ends.

This spread of inaccurate information is easier than ever before in history. 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, while harmful misinformation can now be unwittingly forwarded at your fingertips, spreading rapidly beyond your intended recipients. And the current state of fear that the pandemic is provoking is proving to be a perfect petri dish for those wishing to sow disinformation and multiply malicious rumors.

Given that the spread of false information and misinformation does not respect borders, it is clear that we need a global response. So, what does that response look like?

Firstly, the increased use of digital tools to detect false information and misinformation — and to remove unlawful content — are a critical part of the solution.

While there are no quick fixes, we are witnessing rapid changes. For instance, WhatsApp is imposing a new limit on message forwarding from 256 forwards to just five in order to combat fake news, while a new information hub supported by WHO, UNICEF, and the United Nations Development Programme connects billions of users with accurate health information and while reducing the spread of rumors.

Secondly, support to media development is critical. This means bringing the media, governments, tech companies, civic actors, and others even closer together to address issues such as regulation and self-regulation, the strengthening of professional media standards, and the promotion of media and information literacy.

For instance, UNESCO is helping a network of 25 community radio stations in Eastern and Southern Africa to improve their coverage of COVID-19 related challenges — aiming to reach around 250,000 citizens in remote areas.

Thirdly, the magnitude of the challenges we are confronting requires us to build new partnerships to bolster national authorities to disseminate correct information. For instance, Sweden and UNDP will be tapping the expertise of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency — which has extensive crisis response experience — to implement a new project in 20 countries to help them use technology to tackle misinformation and disinformation.

We also must remember that access to information is also a human rights issue. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone can, “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” But Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has highlighted that some countries have used the COVID-19 outbreak to restrict information and stifle criticism.

“A free media is always essential, but we have never depended on it more than we do during this pandemic, when so many people are isolated and fearing for their health and livelihoods,” she said.

This overall approach, which aims to ensure access to reliable information based on scientific fact — while tackling false information and misinformation — will save lives.

During the 2018 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rumors led locals to distrust both medical workers and the authorities’ response. The U.N.’s work with local communities to disseminate reliable information on how Ebola spreads and how to stop it — was crucial to help contain the disease. It is clear that we need to provide people with the knowledge they need to protect their own health, and others in their communities. Therefore, Sweden is supporting local rural radio stations in the area to raise awareness about the spread of COVID-19.

History has shown us that false information and misinformation can sow unwanted divisions leading to the erosion of trust, increased hostility, and even conflict. So, as countries start to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and we come together to tackle its devastating socioeconomic impacts, the international community needs to ensure that confronting the infodemic does not end as the pandemic ends.

We will stand up to those who provoke division and despair — and provide low- and middle-income countries and fragile states with the level of support, solidarity, and hope they now need. Together, we will help cure the world from this new virus by helping to ensure that everyone has access to science and facts.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Peter Eriksson

    Peter Eriksson is the new Swedish minister for international development cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the previous Swedish government, he was the minister of housing and digitization. Eriksson has also been a member of the European Parliament, member of the Swedish Parliament, and president of the Committee on the Constitution. Additionally, he has also been one of two spokespersons for the Swedish Green Party during 2002-2011.
  • Achim Steiner

    Achim Steiner became United Nations Development Program administrator on June 19, 2017 and will serve for a term of four years. He is also the vice-chair of the U.N. Development Group, which unites the 32 U.N. funds, programs, specialized agencies and other bodies that work to support sustainable development. Over nearly three decades, Steiner has been a global leader on sustainable development, climate resilience and international cooperation. He has worked tirelessly to champion sustainability, economic growth and equality for the vulnerable, and has been a vocal advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals.