Fighting the Coronavirus Infodemic

Weekly Article
OlegDoroshin /
March 31, 2020

As the novel coronavirus continues to wreak devastation, another insidious force is also gaining traction. False claims about COVID-19 are proliferating on social media, as is unsubstantiated information about cures and prevention techniques. Misinformation is spreading so rapidly that the World Health Organization (WHO) now sees itself as fighting a two-front war—as WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in February, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”

Addressing this “infodemic” will be crucial to fighting the pandemic, and it requires not just attacking the immediate challenge, but building the systems, habits, and awareness necessary to resist misinformation and disinformation in the long term. Failure to do so will have grave consequences, as we’ve seen previously: In Pakistan, health workers vaccinating children against polio were repeatedly gunned down following false claims that they were Western spies, while misinformation on Facebook contributed to violence in Myanmar against the Rohingya population.

Current efforts to counter disinformation focus mainly on technological solutions (such as filtering software, artificial intelligence, or modified algorithms aimed primarily at social media platforms) and greater government regulation. While these fixes may be a step forward, they are constrained by the sheer volume of information on social media, as well as by rapidly evolving tactics. Indeed, according to an MIT study, disinformation spreads significantly faster, farther, deeper, and more broadly than the truth.

In other words, even robust regulation and technology solutions inevitably allow some false or misleading information to circulate, potentially reaching millions.

Given that there are virtually no costs to producing and disseminating disinformation, both regulatory and technology responses will likely continue to lag behind the tsunami of actors with an interest in spreading false or misleading content. Thus, while technology and regulation combat the supply of disinformation, an effective counter strategy must also build citizen resilience to false news—in other words, countering demand for such information.

One way to build resilience is through media literacy training, which gives citizens the tools to more critically analyze information disseminated on social media. In addition to fact-checking, citizens learn how to discern what to share, whom to trust, and where to go for credible information; they’re also trained to recognize emotional manipulation, and to think twice before sharing information with others.

Media literacy is a crucial part of a misinformation mitigation strategy: Unlike technology and regulation, it works across all forms of attack, and won’t be rendered obsolete by a change in tactics. Academic research on media literacy has found it improves critical thinking, awareness of media bias, knowledge of current events, and desire to consume reliable news. Some countries, such as Finland, Sweden, and Estonia, have already incorporated media literacy into school instruction, with positive outcomes.

IREX’s media literacy training programming, Learn to Discern (L2D), has also yielded encouraging results: According to a study in Ukraine, adult participants were 28 percent more likely to demonstrate sophisticated knowledge of the news industry, 25 percent more likely to check multiple news sources, and 13 percent more likely to correctly identify and critically analyze a fake news story—even 18 months after the training had taken place.

In the immediate term, with COVID-19 curtailing in-person workshops and classroom instruction, media literacy programming should be deployed via online platforms, such as the Very Verified or Great Courses online media literacy courses. Civil society organizations, technology platforms, and government partners should work together to form a coordinated whole-of-society response to misinformation, tailoring their approaches to different audiences. We must also begin implementing longer-term solutions, such as incorporating media literacy into school curricula, engaging adult populations through self-sustaining libraries and civil society programs, developing new online tools, and supporting further research into the effectiveness of various media literacy interventions.

As amply demonstrated by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s essential to start building up citizen resilience to misinformation. Technological and regulatory fixes may achieve some success, but those approaches will be even more effective if backed by a media-literate citizenry. Helping consumers of information resist and combat misinformation will pay dividends not only in the current crisis, but for generations to come.