Confronting Misinformation During COVID-19

Rise of the ‘infodemic’

The Coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by an unprecedented ‘infodemic’, according to the World Health Organisation.

The huge volume of misinformation covers the causes of the virus, conspiracies around the actions of public bodies and unverified treatments and preventative measures.

This onslaught of inaccurate information began relatively early on. A survey by the UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom, found that within the first week of the ‘stay at home’ measures announced in the UK in March, 46% people encountered false or misleading information. Within this group, 66% reported that they were seeing COVID-19 misinformation at least once a day.

Where does this false information come from?

There are many sources including our politicians (namely Vučić and Trump), far-right groups in the US and the UK as well as scammers. In many cases the authorities have taken steps to tackle this misinformation, for instance the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against ingesting disinfectants, following Trumps comments about the use of bleach.

Friends and family can also be sources of unreliable information – unwittingly passing on rumours and inaccuracies that they have picked up from social media or untrustworthy local media.

And this brings me to one of the biggest culprits – social media. Content on social media is unverifiable and can be posted instantly. This allows misinformation to be produced rapidly and disseminated widely. According to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, some 649 posts were reported to Facebook and Twitter in just 1 month, including false cures, anti-vaccination propaganda and conspiracy theories around 5G.

This is further fuelled by the algorithms that underpin online platforms: when a user views online content, the hosting website displays adverts to generate revenue. Algorithms attempt to direct users to content they are likely to view, in order to increase engagement and hence revenue. Sensationalist content, which may contain misinformation, is more likely to be viewed by users and therefore recommended by the algorithms. And so the vicious circle continues.

What can be done to counter harmful misinformation?

Digital platforms have taken a step in the right direction and attempted to address the spread of misinformation. In March 2020, Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Reddit and Microsoft released a joint statement announcing their collaboration in preventing online misinformation and fraud around coronavirus. This includes moderating content, launching fact checking services and ‘myth busting’ false claims about the virus, along with education and guidance for users on how to recognise misinformation.

Is this enough? Not according to Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate: “Their systems for reporting misinformation and dealing with it are simply not fit for purpose. Social media giants have claimed many times that they are taking Covid-related misinformation seriously, but this new research shows that even when they are handed the posts promoting misinformation, they fail to take action.”

Trusted sources of information

The solution? We need to identify trusted sources of information who, in turn, will help to guide us through the minefield of misinformation. The World Health Organisation (WHO), which is leading the UN’s response to the pandemic, has added a “mythbusters” section to its online coronavirus advice pages. It refutes a staggering array of myths, including claims that drinking potent alcoholic drinks, exposure to high temperatures, or conversely, cold weather, can kill the virus.

Overall we all need to apply a degree of scepticism and become more critical of what is being presented to us online and elsewhere. If we have access to and review multiple sources, are conscious of their limitations and bias; then we’re less likely to believe – and spread – falsehoods.


Adam Schrader, Director of Operations at Riskline, delivered a session on Confronting Misinformation During COVID-19 at the Global Travel Risk Summit Virtual Event.

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Riskline is a world-class travel risk intelligence company. We provide country and city risk assessments and real-time alert messaging to fulfil Duty of Care requirements before and during travel. Trusted by global travel management companies, small businesses and everyone in between, Riskline has been in operation since 2007 and is headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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