IGF 2020 WS #260 COVID-19 “Dis-infodemic”: Challenges, lessons, opportunities

Friday, 13th November, 2020 (15:10 UTC) - Friday, 13th November, 2020 (16:40 UTC)
Room 3
About this Session
The COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by a swirl of disinformation and misinformation that is sowing confusion and mistrust about potentially life-saving personal and policy choices. This "disinfodemic” and efforts to counter it have raised challenges to the right to freedom of expression and access to information. What role do different actors play in countering disinformation, and how can their work and actions be strengthened?

Organizer 1: Intergovernmental Organization, Asia-Pacific Group
Organizer 2: Intergovernmental Organization, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Organizer 3: Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

Speaker 1: Tina Purnat, Intergovernmental Organization, Intergovernmental Organization
Speaker 2: Beeban Kidron, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 3: Piotr Dmochowski-Lipski, Intergovernmental Organization, Eastern European Group
Speaker 4: Claire Wardle, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 5: Stephen Turner, Private Sector, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 6: Cristina Tardaguila, Civil Society, Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC)
Speaker 7: Julie Posetti, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

Additional Speakers

As stated above.


Debate - Auditorium - 90 Min

Policy Question(s)

What actions can governments take to counter disinformation while ensuring access to information and protection of freedom of expression? How can tech companies moderate the spread of false content on their platforms, while providing transparency, accountability and possibility for redress? What role do fact-checkers play in countering disinformation, and how can their work be strengthened? 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of the “disinfodemic” surrounding it have raised challenges. These challenges also engender new opportunities, including those identified in two recent UNESCO policy briefs on the COVID-19 disinfodemic  and a global research of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, entitled ‘Balancing Act: Countering Digital Disinformation while respecting Freedom of Expression’. 

The policy briefs and global research study highlight case studies of COVID-19 counter-disinformation responses and propose sector-specific actionable recommendations and a 23-point framework to test disinformation responses.  

The actionable recommendations include: 1) For identification, monitoring and investigation of disinformation and the networks that propel it, along with normative, educational and credibility-labeling steps; 2) For sunset clauses on emergency provisions that weaken and may normalize infringements on privacy, freedom of expression, access to information and other human rights norms; 3) For internet communications companies to put multi-stakeholder engagement into top gear, demonstrating their goodwill to improve policy and practices in support of access to quality information, including independent journalism, transparency on their controls of content, and redress mechanisms; 4) For governments, internet communications companies and other donors to support core funding for news media and independent fact checking efforts, with no strings attached; 5) For policy makers and institutions to promote open data sources that contain provisions and due safeguards for privacy, especially with reference to surveillance and health data gathering; 6) For states to commit to transparency on strategies to combat the pandemic and recover from it, including public spending on pandemics and economic recovery plans, as a means to counter false information; and 7) For internet communications companies to analyze and upgrade automated algorithmic responses to combat the disinfodemic, while addressing automation errors in the absence of human fact checkers and the dilution of a robust appeal and correction method during the crisis. 


GOAL 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

COVID-19 has spawned a range of disinformation types by different actors that have a profound impact on lives and livelihoods. Falsehoods, fabrications and misinformation have sown confusion about life-saving personal and policy choices. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for “countering the scourge of misinformation - a poison putting more lives at risk” and “salute(d) the journalists and others fact-checking the mountain of misleading stories and social media posts.” The World Health Organization has described a ‘massive infodemic’ that is impeding access to trustworthy sources and reliable information. UNESCO invites representatives of governments, the private sector, civil society, media, journalists and other key stakeholders to: 1) effectively contain and counter the  falsehoods caused by misinformation and disinformation; 2) assist UNESCO Member States to align responses to international human rights standards on freedom of expression, access to information and privacy; 3) empower citizens through Media and Information Literacy skills; 4) support quality independent journalism to provide verifiable and reliable information; 5) analyze automated algorithmic responses to combat the “disinfodemic”, while addressing automation errors in the absence of human fact checkers and the dilution of a robust appeal and correction method. The global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic inspires the emergence of a consensus for dialogue on the need for cooperation among multiple stakeholders to contain the deadly risks of disinformation during a pandemic. This search for common ground may facilitate a broader dialogue on the opportunities for consensus about disinformation responses across other dimensions, impacting achievement of access to information. 

Expected Outcomes

The session will aim to achieve the following objectives: - Facilitate a conversation with actors that have developed resources to combat misinformation related to COVID-19 from the UN, civil society, internet platforms, and media - Discuss available resources, including related to monitoring and fact-checking, media and information literacy, supporting quality journalism (including science journalism and investigative journalism), legislative and policy responses, access to information, open data, safety of journalists, human and AI curation by platforms. - Underscore the central importance of journalism as an essential public service in times of emergencies, and underline risks presented by the pandemic to freedom of expression (repressive laws and fines, expelling journalists, surveillance, censorship) and other human rights - Enable new forms of collaboration and medium and long-term projects to build capacity and better prepare journalists, educators, platforms and other stakeholders in case of future pandemics. - Identify common positions and strategies that can be incorporated in participants on efforts to counter disinformation. In addition to these outcomes the discussions will directly contribute to shaping UNESCO’s work in these areas. This will include supporting Member States to counter disinformation, providing technical advice Member States and other actors, and providing input to the UNESCO series on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development. 

Relevance to Internet Governance: Questions related freedom of expression and media, to the regulation (of self-regulation) of content have long been recognized as core components of internet governance. While there is global consensus that these rights should be protected (such as through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), the rapid production and circulation of disinformation and other harmful content has raised new concerns. Disinformation—whether related to elections, climate change, or public health—post problems that can lead to deadly consequences. Yet address this phenomenon while still respecting international human rights requires bringing together stakeholders from around the world to exchange ideas and good practices, and to identify ways forward. In addition to international organizations, the private sector, and civil society, this session will include a relatively new stakeholder, a representative of the WHO or the office of the UN SG Office—actors who have traditionally not participated in the IGF but have much to add to enrich these debates.

Relevance to Theme: The circulation of misinformation and disinformation leads people to lose trust in public institutions, the media and digital technologies. This trust requires the individuals know that the information they see and hear is true, and what is not can be recognized through critical thinking and skills to verify the source of information. Trust must be built among all stakeholders, in a multi-sector manner that empowers users. Without trust, people may abandon or wall off their use of the internet, leading to fragmentation, and threatening the human rights-based, open, accessible and multi-stakeholder nature of the internet (UNESCO’s concept of internet universality).

Online Participation

As the rest of the IGF, this session will be held online as a Zoom webinar due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An online moderator will be monitoring both the Chat and the Q&A section to integrate remote audience members in the discussion. The Chat will ensure audience participation and interaction during the debate, while the Q&A functionality will allow the online moderator to identify all questions asked and bring them to the attention of the speakers. In order to ensure the participation of a large number of remote participants, the session will be promoted by UNESCO on its website and through its Field Offices.

  • Opening remarks by the moderator and brief introduction by speakers (5 minutes) 

UNESCO’s Director of Policies & Strategies in the field of Communication and Information, Guy Berger, will open the debate.  

  • Brief presentation of UNESCO policy briefs on the COVID 19 disinfodemic (10 minutes) 

As background to the session, Julie Posetti, director of research at the International Center for Journalists and co-author of the UNESCO policy briefs on the COVID-19 disinfodemic, will introduce the main typologies of COVID-19 disinformation and of responses to the disinfodemic it identified in the report. She will summarize the analysis contained in the policy papers, which adopted the same methodology as another major report released this fall by the Broadband Commission on Sustainable Development, on the theme of countering digital disinformation while respecting freedom of expression. 

  • Moderated debate with the speakers (40 minutes) 

The moderator will pose questions to the expert panelists to structure the exchange.  

Among issues to be covered include: 

- Efforts by WHO and other UN agencies to counter misinformation and disinformation.    

- The main findings and conclusions drawn by the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development in its recent report Balancing Act: Countering Digital Disinformation While Respecting Freedom of Expression. 

- The challenge posed by the circulation of misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms, the dangers such content presents to their users, and the new measures and partnerships that Twitter has taken to combat it.  

- The renewed efforts by journalists and fact-checkers, such as members of the International Fact-Checking Network, to counter misinformation and disinformation.   

- The role of the media in countering misinformation, building on the work led by First Draft and others. 

The debate will lead to discussions on recommendations for governments, civil society, private sector, and media.  

  • Q&A session with online audience (30 minutes) 

The moderator will open the floor for questions and comments from participants through the Zoom Q&A and live chat functionalities. 

  • Summary of proposed solutions/recommendations by panelists (3 minutes) 

  • Conclusion (2 minutes) 

Closing sum-up and identification of ways forward. 

1. Key Policy Questions and related issues
What actions can governments take to counter disinformation while ensuring access to information and protection of freedom of expression?
How can tech companies moderate the spread of false content on their platforms, while providing transparency, accountability and possibility for redress?
What role do fact-checkers and media play in countering disinformation, and how can their work be strengthened?
2. Summary of Issues Discussed

The panel featured representatives from the tech sector, civil society, academia, NGOs, as well as WHO and UNESCO.

Speakers agreed that there is a crucial need to foster multi-stakeholder partnerships and cross-sectoral collaboration, to ensure that the Internet remains an open space for the exchange of reliable information.

Julie Posetti (ICFJ) summarized the types of COVID-19 disinformation and responses to the current “disinfodemic”, based on her contributions to the Broadband Commission’s report “Balancing Act” and two UNESCO policy briefs.

Tina Purnat (WHO) called for crafting a public research agenda to manage and respond to both infodemics and disinfodemics.

Beeban Kidron (5Rights Foundation) underlined the relevance of such research, arguing that disinformation types cannot be separated from one another and have an encompassing impact on a multitude of crises, including on children’s wellbeing.

Guy Berger (UNESCO) stressed the need to understand cultural aspects of information as part of a human condition which includes norms, emotion, fear, aspirations, identities, and culture. Piotr Dmochowski-Lipski (EUTELSAT IGO) stressed that national interpretations could negatively impact the efficacy of policy-making processes and international standards.

Stephen Turner (Twitter) presented Twitter’s recent content moderation decisions that were made with the intention to detect and delete harmful content concerning COVID-19, based upon the challenges such content presents, and how users interact with it. He also presented Twitter’s partnerships with international organizations such as UNESCO on issues of media and information literacy.

Cristina Tardáguila (IFCN) pointed to social media platforms developing disinformation policies only for selected countries. She advocated for more work in designing global approaches to disinformation in the online sphere, as well as a focus on information literacy.

Claire Wardle (First Draft News) advocated for more qualitative research in the field in order to strengthen the empirical foundation on which to base actions against disinformation.

3. Key Takeaways

The session found consensus on two main points. Firstly, it was recognized that all stakeholders have stakes and potential in shaping Internet governance. All groups represented in the panel pushed for increased cooperation on the issue of disinformation, in order to produce a holistic assessment framework.

Secondly, they agreed that communities and individuals are both essential to designing and implementing initiatives that address disinformation while strengthening media and information literacy. This is particularly relevant in the context of the COVID-19 disinfodemic, in which information has life-or-death consequences for vulnerable populations.

Overall, speakers appear to agree to a varying extent that online platforms play an essential role in the spread of both disinformation and reliable information. The academia and civil society representatives were vocal about the need for platforms to be subject to independent regulatory oversight. They also encouraged online providers to pursue transparency and accountability when conceiving and applying their content moderation and removal strategies.

More doubts were raised concerning some possibilities to empower media outlets. There was discussion of how the business model employed by online platforms puts traditional news providers at a clear disadvantage. One speaker questioned whether online platforms are “fit for purpose” as they have become predilected vehicles of disinformation. Therefore, all participating groups would benefit from continued discussion on this aspect to better define potential solutions.

6. Final Speakers

Moderator: Guy Berger, UNESCO, International Organization

Presenter: Julie Posetti, International Centre for Journalists, Academia, Western European and Others Group

Speaker 1: Tina Purnat, WHO, Intergovernmental Organization
Speaker 2: Beeban Kidron, 5Rights Foundation, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group
Speaker 3: Piotr Dmochowski-Lipski, EUTELSAT IGO, Intergovernmental Organization, Eastern European Group Speaker 4: Claire Wardle, First Draft News, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group
Speaker 5: Stephen Turner, Twitter, Private Sector, Western European and Others Group
Speaker 6: Cristina Tardáguila, International Fact-Checking Network, Civil Society, Latin American and Caribbean Group

7. Reflection to Gender Issues

The session focused on a series of technical and partnership solutions to the issues of disinformation, including the perspective of an array of internet governance stakeholders. Therefore, gender issues were not explicitly mentioned in the debate. However, the session showcased gender balance, with five out of eight panelists being women.

9. Group Photo
Panel for IGF 2020 Workshop #260 "Disinfodemic: Challenges, Lessons, Opportunities"
10. Voluntary Commitment

No voluntary commitments were made during the session.