This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.
To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.
Over the past few months, the wave of disinformation linked to the COVID-19 pandemic has undermined policy responses to contain the spread of the disease and amplified distrust among citizens. Conspiracy theories on the origins of the virus, fake remedies and misleading healthcare information have clouded public debates.
Disinformation campaigns are nothing new. The disintermediation of news sources sparked by digitalisation, growing polarisation and persistent uncertainty over recent years, have provided fertile ground for the weaponisation of information. The current context, initially a public health emergency and increasingly an economic and societal crisis has only exacerbated the viral power and pervasiveness of “fake news.” And the risks are heightened by the real prospect that a vaccine against COVID19, once found, may run up against the ultimate obstacle: the resistance of a significant part of the population to trust and believe in it, fed by the pre-existing and potent force that is the “Anti-Vaxx movement”. As highlights Heidi Larson, anthropologist and Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, some parts of society mistakenly perceive vaccines as a “consumer choice”.
Containing the spread of COVID-19 requires both a sense of individual responsibility and of collective consciousness. In a climate of distrust and knowledge gaps, it can be sometimes difficult to distinguish between sound advice based on facts and unfounded claims that seek to confuse. Just as the pandemic has exposed the extent to which our societies rely on the services provided by front line health workers, the “infodemic” (as declared by the World Health Organisation) has uncovered the importance of “front line information workers”. Indeed, transparent, timely and reliable information has become an essential resource to empower citizens in the midst of the pandemic.
Evidence-based policy-making is a part of the OECD’s genetic fabric and helping to ensure that the responses to the crisis are informed by reliable data and evidence are a key priority for us in seeking to fulfill our mission of “better policies for better lives”.
How do we make sense of complexity in a world where human emotions, diverging interests and conflicting values coexist and intermingle with evidence?
At the OECD, we are fully aware that effective and sustainable policies are the direct result of a “collective engineering” process. By gathering diverse policy-makers and shapers, we help countries compare experiences and analyse best practices. We then use this information to craft solid policy advice and recommendations. This information sharing exercise is essential to generate ownership around evidence and ensure that, ultimately, it informs decisions that improve people’s well-being.
However, as disinformation practices sow unsubstantiated mistrust and shed doubt on the reliability of data, they hinder policy makers’ ability to reach timely and informed decisions.
Back in 2016, as “fake news” became a phenomenon of increasing concern, we started exploring the linkages between evidence-provision and disinformation. The OECD Forum was a key vessel for us to build a multi-stakeholder approach to analyse this issue. We organised an Idea Factory entitled “A Survivor’s Guide for a Post-Truth World”. This interactive workshop gathered from sociologists, journalists to members of governments, to identify the challenges of new information consumption possibilities and behaviors. We realised that, at a time when the creation of meaning and content sharing experienced a metamorphosis, it was easy to fall prey of “echo-chambers” that amplify our views and lead people to their preferred version of truth. How could we build resilience against this? Acknowledge citizens’ different life experiences and needs, as well as broadening the spectrum of our engagement. In other words, elevating the relationship between policy-makers and citizens into a collaborative process based on partnership and joint value creation.
Since then, the Forum has hosted more than 20 different sessions exploring how to reinvigorate democracy and rethink the supply of evidence in a world vulnerable to fabricated news. We have also embarked on active listening exercises, contributing to international debates on how to build healthy and resilient information environments.
The COVID-19 “infodemic”
The COVID-19 crisis has generated an unprecedented demand for “expertise”. In March, the OECD launched the COVID-19 Digital Hub, a multilingual digital platform that provides timely and comprehensive information on targeted policies to deal with the impacts of the pandemic and improve countries’ preparedness for the recovery. As part of our response, we are also investing efforts in raising public awareness about disinformation during the coronavirus crisis. We have gone a step forward and developed a multi-dimensional analysis of the phenomenon, looking at the areas of governance, education and online platforms.
Our Hub integrates two new policy briefs that examine the importance of public communication and online platforms in the disinformation challenge. Our brief on “Transparency, communication and trust: The role of public communication in responding to the wave of disinformation about the new coronavirus” analyses the need for a co-ordinated multi-stakeholder approach to disinformation, with clear public leadership and a transparent communication strategy for public institutions at all levels. By communicating with timeliness, strengthening citizens’ participation and basing interventions on evidence, governments can help mitigate the effects of disinformation.
This assessment is complemented by “Combatting COVID-19 disinformation on online platforms”, which focuses on the role of online platforms, both as vectors of disinformation and as relevant actors that can help contain the circulation of false claims. The brief recommends four key actions that tech companies, governments, online platforms, public health organisations and other stakeholders can take to counter COVID-19 disinformation in the digital world.
The best antidote to disinformation is perhaps education. Digital natives can voluntarily or involuntarily be digitally naïve. If we want fake news to become a matter of the past, we need to equip future generations with the right digital and media literacy skills. This leads us to the third pillar of our analysis: the article “Navigating ambiguity during coronavirus: Recommendations for tackling the infodemic” written by Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills, and Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck, founder and CEO of Lie Detectors. As stressed by the authors, we need to recalibrate our educational systems, investing in critical thinking as a necessary “compass” to navigate and thrive in both, online and offline worlds.
The COVID-19 “infodemic” has exposed our vulnerability to disinformation and highlighted the need for more systematic and long-term solutions. As the global race to find a COVID-19 vaccine continues, there is growing concern that the anti-vax movement will capitalise on people’s fears to discredit the safety or effectiveness of a potential cure. As the American poet Robert Lowell put it, we might discover that the light at the end of the tunnel is actually the headlight of an oncoming train. The role of health communicators in bridging the vaccine trust gap will be essential. If groundless narratives succeed in spreading the belief that the COVID-19 vaccine is a threat to people´s health rather than a lifesaving solution, we may need to prepare for another serious health problem.
Although we cannot inoculate ourselves against disinformation practices permanently, we can develop immunity over time. First, we must acknowledge uncertainty, as a sign of humility. Then, we must focus on building resilience through education and boost trust in government through co-ordinated action, transparency and strategic communications. As a “front line information worker”, the OECD will continue to contribute in this endeavour by building bridges between well-grounded evidence, people-centered narratives and reputable policymaking.
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