Combatting COVID-19 disinformation on online platforms

Abstract: Disinformation and misinformation about COVID-19 is quickly and widely disseminated across the Internet, reaching and potentially influencing many people. This policy brief derives four key actions that governments and platforms can take to counter COVID-19 disinformation on platforms, namely: 1) supporting a multiplicity of independent fact-checking organisations; 2) ensuring human moderators are in place to complement technological solutions; 3) voluntarily issuing transparency reports about COVID-19 disinformation; and 4) improving users’ media, digital and health literacy skills.

Key messages

As the COVID-19 global pandemic continues, many countries are emerging from confinement, and as a result are focusing on how to keep people safe and healthy and prevent a “second wave”. A key aspect of this effort is ensuring the accurate and timely delivery of health-related information.

In the past six months, an outbreak of disinformation (i.e. false or misleading information, deliberately circulated to cause harm) about COVID-19 has spread quickly, widely and inexpensively across the Internet, endangering lives and hampering the recovery. As effective new treatments and vaccines become available, disinformation could hinder uptake and further jeopardise countries’ efforts to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.

Online platforms are a key channel for this disinformation, but they also play an important role in limiting its circulation. Many online platforms have taken bold actions during the pandemic, including stepping up their support of, and reliance on, independent fact checking organisations as well as on automated content moderation technologies to reinforce their efforts to detect, remove, and otherwise counter false, misleading and potentially harmful content about COVID-19. Some platforms have also banned ads for medical masks and respirators.

Platforms should be encouraged to continue and enhance these practices in support of successful “re-openings” while ensuring that users’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression are preserved. The latter concern requires an eye for contextual nuance that is highly challenging for algorithms. Therefore, more human moderators are also needed to complement automated approaches.

Online platforms are also a key channel for distributing accurate information about COVID-19, but they should not be expected to act alone, either in their efforts to make accurate information available or to counter disinformation. Co-operation and co-ordination among companies, governments, national and international health authorities, and civil society is crucial.

People need digital and health literacy skills to navigate and make sense of the COVID-19 content they see online, to know how to verify its accuracy and reliability, and to be able to distinguish facts from opinions, rumours and falsehoods.

The practices and collaborations undertaken by online platforms in response to disinformation about COVID-19, including possible future actions to enhance transparency, offer a strong foundation for addressing other forms of disinformation.

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