UN-ICFJ Research Examines COVID-19 Disinformation

By: Julie Posetti and Kalina Bontcheva | 04/23/2020

This article is part of a two-part series. See the second article here.

COVID-19 has spawned a flood of potentially deadly mis- and disinformation that directly impacts lives and livelihoods around the world. UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres has described this  as a “poison,” and humanity’s other new “enemy.”

As part of the UN’s response to the crisis, we were commissioned to produce two new policy briefs published today by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), with the support of ICFJ. The goal is to help the UN, governments, journalists, civil society and internet communications companies respond to the crisis -- and to ensure that  freedom of expression rights are not undercut in the process. This research highlights journalism’s critical role in  fighting back.

What is the disinfodemic?

The term we have adopted to describe the falsehoods fuelling the pandemic is disinfodemic - because of the huge ‘viral load’ of potentially deadly disinformation. The disinfodemic often hides falsehoods amidst true information, and conceals itself in the clothes of familiar formats. It resorts to well-known distribution methods - ranging from false or misleading memes and fake sources, through to trapping people into clicking on links connected to criminal ‘phishing’ expeditions. It can be shared by individuals, organized groups, some news media and official channels – wittingly or unwittingly.

To help navigate  this crisis, we have identified and critically analyzed 10 different categories of responses to the disinfodemic, and made a range of recommendations for action (see part two of this ICFJ series). But to start, we mapped nine key themes and four main format types associated with the disinfodemic. 

Nine key themes of the disinfodemic

1. Origins and spread of the coronavirus/COVID-19 disease

While scientists first identified cases of novel coronavirus (the virus that causes the disease COVID-19) connected to an animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, there are many conspiracy theories that accuse other actors and causes. These extend from blaming the 5G network through to chemical weapons manufacturers. A label like “Chinese virus” instead of neutral terminology inflates location into an adjective, in an historical echo of early pandemics that gave a biased meaning to a noun.

2. Medical science: symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

This theme includes dangerous disinformation about immunity, prevention, treatments and cures. For example, myriad ‘sticky’ memes claim that drinking or gargling cow urine, hot water or salt water could prevent the infection reaching lungs. They cannot.

3. False and misleading statistics

In our research, we saw misrepresented and distorted data connected to the reported incidence of the disease and mortality rates.

4. Impacts on society and the environment  

This theme in the disinfodemic ranges from panic-buying triggers and false information about lockdowns, through to the supposed re-emergence of dolphins in Venetian canals.

5. Economic impacts

This theme includes spreading false information about the economic and health impacts of the pandemic, suggestions that social isolation is not economically justified, and even claims that COVID-19 is overall creating jobs.

6. Politicization

One-sided and positively framed information is presented in an effort to negate the significance of facts that are inconvenient for certain actors in power. Other disinformation designed to mislead for political advantage includes: equating COVID-19 with flu; making baseless claims about the likely length of the pandemic; and assertions about the (un)availability of medical testing and equipment.

7. Discrediting of journalists and credible news outlets

This is a theme often associated with political disinformation, with unsupported accusations that certain news outlets are themselves peddling in disinformation. This behavior includes abuse levelled at journalists publicly, but it is also used by less visible disinformation campaigns to undermine trust in verified news produced in the public interest. Attacks on journalists in the time of COVID-19 have been associated with crackdowns on critical coverage of political actors and States.

8. Content driven by fraudulent financial gain

This includes scams designed to steal people’s private data.

9. Celebrity-focused disinformation

This includes false stories about actors being diagnosed with COVID-19.



The four main formats of COVID-19 disinformation

COVID-19 disinformation has harnessed a wide range of formats. Many have been honed in the context of anti-vaccination campaigns and political disinformation. These formats frequently smuggle falsehoods into people’s consciousness by focusing on beliefs rather than reason, and feelings instead of deduction. They rely on prejudices, polarization and identity politics, as well as credulity, cynicism and individuals’ search for simple sense-making in the face of great complexity and change. The contamination typically spreads in text, images, video, memes and sound.

1. Emotive narrative constructs and memes

False claims and textual narratives which often mix strong emotional language, lies and/or incomplete information, and personal opinions, along with elements of truth. These formats are particularly hard to uncover on closed messaging apps.

2. Fraudulently altered, fabricated, or decontextualized images and videos

These are used to create confusion and generalized distrust and/or evoke strong emotions through viral memes or false stories.

3. Disinformation infiltrators and orchestrated campaigns 

These are aimed at: sowing discord in online communities; advancing nationalism and geopolitical agendas; illicit collection of personal health data and phishing; or monetary gain from spam and adverts for false cures. These formats may also include artificial amplification and antagonism by bots and trolls as part of organized disinformation campaigns.

4. Fabricated websites and authoritative identities

These include false sources, polluted datasets, and fake government or company websites, and websites publishing seemingly plausible information in the genre of news stories (e.g. reporting bogus cases of COVID-19).

These are the main themes and format types of COVID-19 disinformation our research identified. In part two of this series, we identify ten types of response to the disinfodemic emerging internationally, and we analyze these with reference to significant freedom of expression challenges. We also make a range of recommendations highlighting journalism’s critical role in the fight to defend truth.

About the authors

Dr. Julie Posetti is ICFJ’s Global Research Director. She is also a senior researcher affiliated with the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) and the University of Oxford.

Prof. Kalina Bontcheva is Professor in Computer Science at the University of Sheffield and a member of CFOM.

Note: The following research collaborators contributed to the development of this research: Denis Teyssou (AFP), Clara Hanot (EU Disinfo Lab), Dr. Trisha Meyer (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Sam Gregory (Witness), and Dr. Diana Maynard (University of Sheffield).  The dataset on which this research is  based consists of a sample of over 200 articles, policy briefs, and research reports. We systematically searched public databases curated by the Poynter Institute’s International Fact Checking Network (IFCN), Index on Censorship and the International Press Institute (IPI), and First Draft News, along with the websites of news media, national governments, intergovernmental organizations, healthcare professionals, NGOs, think tanks, and academic publications.

This article is part of a two-part series. See the second article here.

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