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We must all fight the global pandemic of misinformation, while protecting free expression

Web Foundation · April 7, 2020

By Emily Sharpe, Web Foundation Director of Policy

With US agencies issuing warnings against drinking bleach, the Kenyan health minister debunking a rumour that black skin is resistant to the virus, and some governments allegedly fueling disinformation, the world is fighting not only a pandemic, but also a virus of misinformation. At best, this gets in the way of important advice and support. At worst, it costs lives.

This isn’t a modern phenomenon, nor is it unique to the digital world. In the mid-17th century, rebels looking to rock the British establishment spread false reports that King George was ill. Today, online hoaxes have claimed the Pope caught coronavirus. And fake cures peddled to an anxious public are, unfortunately, age-old.

While the web isn’t the cause of misinformation, it helps rumours and falsehoods spread faster and further than ever before. But at the same time, it’s a critical tool for governments, health authorities and scientists to disseminate critical information quickly to a diverse public. For this and many other reasons, the web is a vital lifeline in this crisis.

To help preserve the web as the channel of accurate information we so need, the Web Foundation has published a policy brief (PDF) with recommendations for governments, companies and citizens to promote accurate information, free expression and open knowledge. These are based on the international human rights framework, underscoring the need for a nuanced approach to balancing public health and safety with the right to free expression and privacy. They also stem from the Contract for the Web — a global plan of action we launched last year to work towards an online world that is safe and empowering for everyone.

Governments must lead with accurate information

Governments are responsible for getting accurate information to the public, and need to make sure that official Covid-19 advice reaches as many people as possible. They should be creative in meeting audiences where they are, following the lead of the World Health Organization, who partnered with Whatsapp and TikTok to speak to younger audiences. Governments should also translate information into multiple languages and make it accessible to people of all abilities, so all people living in the community have the information they need to stay healthy. 

And we know it’s not enough to share accurate information — governments also have to proactively challenge inaccurate information when it surfaces. The UK government has shown leadership here, mobilising Rapid Response Units to combat misleading narratives and dangerous claims when they emerge.

It should also go without saying that political leaders should never share misinformation or engage in disinformation campaigns. And yet, with misleading statements from political leaders in Brazil, Venezuela and the US removed by social media platforms, the point sadly needs to be underlined.

The full set of recommendations include calls for governments to openly publish accurate, up-to-date data so that researchers and developers across the world can build on that knowledge to help fight the virus. Governments also need to ensure policies are designed consistent with human rights standards to protect free expression and access to information. It’s critical that activists, journalists and medical professionals are able to freely use the web to speak out and highlight challenges to managing the pandemic.

Companies must keep their billions of users informed

With an audience of billions, the role of tech companies — and social media platforms in particular — is central. Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tech giants have a huge influence over what the world reads, watches and hears about the virus. But they also face significant challenges to providing accurate information to the public — not least the sheer volume of Covid-19 related content being shared.

Companies have already taken a number of commendable steps to amplify official and accurate Covid-19 sources, like devoting prime real-estate on their home pages to direct people to authoritative sources. They can and should do more to promote official advice and use “positive nudges” to encourage users to share accurate information. Early research offers hope for such techniques. Messaging services, even if encrypted, could send periodic messages in group chats to remind users to check official sources before sharing information. Platforms could show “fly-outs” or “pop-ups” when users start to write posts, prompting them to consider if what they’re sharing is accurate.

One of the biggest challenges social platforms face is identifying and slowing or eliminating the spread of misinformation when it appears. Now it’s even harder since many companies have understandably asked human content moderators to stay home. We’re calling on these companies to quickly find ways for moderators to continue their important work in a safe environment, and to dedicate emergency engineering and product resources to improve AI-based detection of harmful material. Platforms should also limit the number of times a user can forward a message to slow the spread of misinformation, so fact-checkers, media and public authorities have more time to promote factual messages.

Beyond social media platforms, other sectors are critical to supporting a healthy information ecosystem. Many news sites have removed paywalls on Covid-19 content so that everyone can access trusted news, regardless of their ability to pay. Others should join them — as should scientific publishers so that more people can rely on robust research to debunk false claims. In this spirit of removing barriers to information, network providers should do everything they can — including subsidising the cost of data for some users — to ensure everyone has the connectivity they need to use to get advice and fact-check information online. 

Citizens must be the immune system for the web

Governments and companies have a huge responsibility to step up to the plate. But as citizens, we too have a role to play. We are more than passive consumers of online content — what we write, post and share shapes our online information environment. All of us who care for the freedom and creativity the web provides have a responsibility to tend for it.

We must be the immune system for the web. Bad actors, trolls and opportunists will always try to infect the web with rumours, myths and lies. And others will reshare them in a genuine desire to help others. But these can only go so far if we don’t spread them. We must act as antibodies, stopping falsehoods in their tracks and overwhelming them with accurate information from credible sources.

By staying at home we help to slow the spread of the disease. We must be just as committed to curbing misinformation that makes it worse. With a few steps, we can stop it in its tracks. Do share information from official sources. And take care before you share content to make sure what you’re sharing isn’t misleading. Learn as much as you can about the disease, and if you’re not sure if what you’re sharing is true, search online to validate any claims first. If your friends and family share misleading information, message them privately and ask them to stop. And if you see false claims from someone you don’t know, report it on the platform and block them.

It has never been more important that we come together to fight online misinformation and threats to freedom of expression. If we each play our role, together we can overwhelm Covid-19 misinformation and make sure the web continues to keep us informed and safe in a moment that we need it most.

Read the policy brief in full (PDF).

Find out more about how the web can help in the fight against Covid-19.

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