UN enlists 10,000 digital volunteers to fight COVID-19 misinformation

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U.N.'s digital volunteers receive daily emails on actions they can take to counter COVID-19 misinformation on their own social media platforms. Photo by: @wocintechchat on Unsplash

NEW YORK — The United Nations is mounting a response to counter misinformation on COVID-19, which is spreading faster than the disease itself, according to Melissa Fleming, under-secretary-general of global communications.

“It is easier to spread misinformation because no direct contact with other people is necessary. You can multiply it by the thousands depending on how many followers you have, and in an environment of generalized fear, it is spreading like wildfire,” Fleming said.

“Good communication is how we are going to overcome the virus.”

— Melissa Fleming, under-secretary-general of global communications, U.N.

Fleming said that the rise of misinformation is having a “devastating effect” on public health responses to the pandemic, and cited the need for science-based information that people can trust.

The U.N. has enlisted the help of more than 10,000 digital volunteers, who are working in nine different languages, to correct false information on the health crisis through their own social media channels. Unfounded theories include the idea that drinking alcohol or eating garlic can prevent transmission of the coronavirus.

“The reach of social media is in every corner of that globe, and with that comes opportunity to provide good information, but enormous danger to confuse people and steer them in bad directions,” Fleming told Devex.

Targeting false information on COVID-19: What the funding data shows

Targeting misinformation and disinformation surrounding COVID-19 is a challenge. While technology is spreading false information in urban areas, remote communities face their own challenges.

“Good communication is how we are going to overcome the virus. If people trust public health guidance, there is much better chance of how we will be able to get through this,” Fleming continued.

More than one in four of the most viewed COVID-19 videos on YouTube in English contains misleading or inaccurate information, according to May findings published in the science journal BMJ Global Health.

Shortly after the outbreak accelerated in March, the U.N. began to warn of another enemy: the rise of a misinformation “infodemic.” The U.N. Department of Global Communications launched a new public messaging campaign, Verified, in May with the creative agency Purpose. This week, the campaign amplified a new line of messaging that asks people to pause and verify the source of their information before they share posts online.

Devex funding data found that as of June 30, there have been new funding announcements worth $471 million, in addition to grants, programs, and other opportunities to combat the information challenge.

The spread of coronavirus misinformation has been on the rise in many low- and middle-income countries where the Dutch development agency Cordaid works, according to senior strategist Peter van Sluijs.

“Even if you are on Facebook and you have 300 friends, that makes a difference, because this is with the knowledge that people trust people they know.”

— Melissa Fleming, under-secretary-general of global communications, U.N.

“It is a huge problem. You hear that this is an orchestrated disease, this is not happening, it is a conspiracy by the government to lock up the country,” van Sluijs said. “It all has to do with trust and collaboration.”

The fight against COVID-19 misinformation will be long-term, without a clear end in sight, according to Fleming. But some strategies during the pandemic can be applied to other areas of work. Press releases are not an effective strategy to counter disinformation, which is often created to look like credible news and may incorporate manipulated photographs. Creating content that is trustworthy, but also visually compelling, is a more effective tactic, Fleming said.

“It depends on funding going forward, but we think [the campaign] will be relevant when we start working on the areas of what we call building back better, including communications and messaging about the SDGs and climate action,” Fleming said. “I think we will be much more savvy, more strategic and better placed to really promote not going back to where we were before the pandemic, but to get people excited about the blueprint for a better world.”

In May, the U.N. placed an open call for volunteer digital-first responders, and has since enlisted the support of more than 10,000 people, who receive daily emails about actions they can take to counter misinformation on their own social media platforms. The volunteers include fact-checkers in Colombia and journalists in the U.K., and the number of supporters is growing at a rate of 10% per week, according to the U.N.

“Even if you are on Facebook and you have 300 friends, that makes a difference, because this is with the knowledge that people trust people they know,” Fleming said.

The phenomenon of misinformation on social media is “quite familiar” in the Baltic region, according to Andrejs Pildegovičs, Latvia’s ambassador to the U.N. The Latvian mission to the U.N. is partnering with the global body on the Verified initiative.

“We have been facing all sorts of information sharing issues in the Baltic region for some time, organized by state and non-state actions, and we are all quite familiar with this sort of hybrid threat,” Pildegovičs said.

The misinformation circulating in Latvia ranges from COVID-19 not existing to 5G cellphone towers causing the outbreak. Pildegovičs expressed concern about the trend of people protesting against the use of a potential vaccine.

“The vaccine is not even on the market, yet people are already saying that the vaccine can make you sick, and other kinds of malicious, dangerous theories which undermine our collective efforts. Some of the information is targeted against the foundations of our democratic institutions,” Pildegovičs told Devex.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.