Sustaining the UN Response to Infodemics

UN Secretary-General António Guterres chairs a meeting on the COVID-19 outbreak as it relates to UN staff, as well as coordinating the UN message on the outbreak, March 11, 2020. Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesperson for the UNSG, and Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications are pictured standing. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, false and misleading information and narratives about the disease, its prevention and treatment, vaccines, and recommended public health measures have spread rapidly around the world. This “infodemic” has directly undermined the public health response to the pandemic. It has reduced compliance with preventive measures such as lockdowns, social distancing, and mask-wearing, as well as vaccine uptake. It has also resulted in attacks against healthcare workers and discrimination and violence against East Asians, LGBTQI people, women, and other groups.

Infodemics and other “information disorders” are not a new phenomenon. The COVID-19 infodemic, however, was unique in its scale due to the pandemic’s global impact and the speed at which information spread and evolved. At the same time, the COVID-19 infodemic has been hyper-localized, with narratives shaped by local cultural and political contexts and power structures.

The immediate impacts of the infodemic may decrease as we move into the pandemic’s later phases. On May 5th, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the COVID-19 pandemic no longer rises to the level of a public health emergency, and confirmed that related cases and deaths have fallen to their lowest level since the start of the pandemic. Observed levels of COVID-19-related mis- and disinformation also appear to be reaching new lows in some parts of the world.

But this does not mean that the COVID-19 infodemic is a concern of the past, for several reasons. First, the COVID-19 infodemic has had broad societal impacts that could be long-lasting and require action to address them. For example, there is evidence that COVID-19 conspiracy theories can decrease institutional trust and support for government regulations. It may also have contributed to decreased confidence in childhood vaccinations.

Second, many of the root causes of the COVID-19 infodemic remain unaddressed. The infodemic arose because of broader vulnerabilities in the information environment, including low levels of digital media literacy, lack of access to quality journalism, and digital platforms’ ability to rapidly spread mis- and disinformation. These existing vulnerabilities compound the impact of emerging trends such as the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence–enabled technologies such as generative AI and the information operations that accompany rising geopolitical tensions. Such trends are more understood in the context of the US, Western Europe, and, to a lesser extent, East Asia, where most research has been focused and where there are more tools available to measure harm.

Third, even if the COVID-19 pandemic is abating, other pandemics could arise, and these would also likely be accompanied by infodemics. Similarly, infodemics are closely related to other types of information disorders that are ongoing or escalating. For example, there is evidence of links between conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and misinformation about climate change.

It is therefore critical to maintain and build upon the efforts undertaken to address the COVID-19 infodemic. These efforts have spanned a wide range of actors. The UN, in particular, has been at the forefront of the response, as described in a recent IPI report. The UN recognized early in the pandemic that mis- and disinformation around COVID-19 was a major challenge and would require a robust response. Because the infodemic intersected with the mandates of many UN entities, this response involved many parts of the UN system. WHO played a central role given that it was leading the global pandemic response, had close ties with national health authorities, and had access to data and expertise. UNICEF was also well-positioned to play a major role, with its substantial field presence, existing work encouraging vaccine uptake, and mandate to conduct social listening. The infodemic intersected with UNESCO’s mandate to protect and promote freedom of expression. In the UN Secretariat, the Department of Global Communications (DGC) had a clear role as the UN’s lead communications office.

This was not the first time the UN had taken action against harmful information. For example, the UN had already launched a strategy against hate speech, a project to map “information pollution,” and a handbook for journalists on how to fight “fake news.” WHO, UNICEF, and other UN entities had also been addressing mis- and disinformation as part of immunization campaigns and in their response to recent Ebola outbreaks. While these experiences provided the UN with some institutional capacity and knowledge, the unprecedented scale of the COVID-19 infodemic overwhelmed these existing capacities.

Experts credit the UN for the speed and robustness of this response. For example, WHO has played a critical role in setting the agenda and pioneering the field of “infodemic management.” And UN initiatives like the Verified campaign and the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance have been able to reach broad audiences with context-specific messages through networks of unconventional UN partners like fact-checking organizations. Crucially, UN entities have also built the capacity of national authorities to monitor and respond to mis- and disinformation.

But the UN response to the infodemic has also confronted challenges that will need to be addressed, particularly as attention wanes. In particular, there are four areas where UN entities should take action.

First, they should develop a shared understanding of the infodemic and other information disorders. Currently, the UN lacks a system-wide understanding of how the harms of infodemics relate to the mandate of each UN entity. A consultative process to define these harms could reveal existing capacities, gaps, and opportunities and allow UN entities to map out their comparative advantages in responding to infodemics. It could also clarify what successful infodemic management looks like for each UN entity, allowing them to better monitor and evaluate their efforts and build evidence of what works. With a stronger evidence base, UN entities could more easily convince donors to provide sustainable funding and UN leadership to adopt a system-wide strategy for building information resilience.

Second, the UN should sustain and build the capacity of its staff to counter information disorders. While UN entities hired additional staff to manage the COVID-19 infodemic, many of them are on temporary contracts, and this additional capacity risks being rolled back. Even with this additional staff, the UN has capacity gaps in critical areas, including the ability to analyze information gathered by monitoring social media. UN entities should therefore invest in communications departments, providing them with the necessary staffing, resources, and tools to predict, monitor, and counter information disorders. More broadly, they should ensure that all staff, including senior leaders, have the necessary training and awareness to understand how contemporary information environments impact their work.

Third, the UN should adopt a system-wide approach to the use of technologies and engagement with tech platforms. While new technologies such as social-listening dashboards have helped UN entities monitor the infodemic, they have often been implemented in an ad-hoc manner without adequate staff training or safeguards. UN entities would benefit from clear standards on acquiring new technological tools to ensure that they protect data privacy, are context-appropriate, and are used in combination with traditional information-gathering approaches. Similarly, UN engagement with major tech platforms to address mis- and disinformation has been a source of frustration for many UN staff. Some are concerned that some tech platforms are “dividing and conquering” the UN system by engaging separately with different entities and offices or “blue-washing” their image by promoting their work with the UN without taking meaningful action. The UN should therefore develop clear guidelines for engaging with platforms to ensure a unified approach and pressure platforms to better assess and mitigate the effects of information disorders on communities, especially those in the Global South.

Finally, the UN should continue building the capacity of national authorities to communicate during public health crises, as it is these national authorities who should ultimately be at the forefront of the infodemic response. However, UN entities must balance such support with protections for human rights, as state-led efforts to counter disinformation can often undermine freedom of speech. This should involve support for robust, independent media organizations that can meet the demand for trustworthy information at the local level.

Ultimately, the UN’s infodemic response finds itself at a pivotal point: Due to donor fatigue around COVID-19, funding for the infodemic response is falling while the need for a robust infrastructure to address infodemics and other information disorders may be increasing. As short-term, emergency funding focused on COVID-19 runs out, it is important to continue supporting infodemic response teams and programs through long-term, nonemergency funding. And as infodemic response teams and programs continue to look beyond COVID-19, interagency coordination will become even more important to ensure the UN has a coherent approach to all types of information disorders.

Gabriel Delsol is a Research Consultant at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Albert Trithart is Editor and Research Fellow at IPI.