The global spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been accompanied by a wave of disinformation that is undermining policy responses and amplifying distrust and concern among citizens. Around the world, governments are leveraging public communication to counteract disinformation and support policy. The efficacy of these actions will depend on grounding them in open government principles, chiefly transparency, to build trust in public institutions. This policy brief provides an overview of this new wave of disinformation and notes some emerging examples of OECD member countries’ responses to it through public communication initiatives specifically. It also offers preliminary guidelines on engaging with citizens during the crisis to help address this challenge.
The reflections presented here are based on non-exhaustive evidence gathered through ongoing OECD data collection activities with member and partner countries, as part of the OECD Open and Innovative Government Division’s ongoing analysis on the role of public communication and media ecosystems to promote the open government principles of transparency, accountability, integrity and citizen participation. This brief complements a related analysis on Combating Covid-19 disinformation on online platforms developed by the OECD Directorate on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI), as well as an upcoming Working Paper that takes a more comprehensive look at Governance Responses To Disinformation: How open government principles can inform policy options. Together, these publications form part of an emerging holistic framework on the role of public communication for good governance. The country examples included in this brief are intended to illustrate current practices.
Disinformation is affecting countries' responses to the global pandemic by undermining trust, amplifying fears, and sometimes leading to harmful behaviours. At a time when citizen trust and compliance with measures from lockdowns to hygiene guidelines is of utmost importance, a surge in disinformation is undermining government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and putting people’s health at risk. Unproven medical treatments, prevention techniques and other information are flooding the Internet and being disseminated by users whose concerns are reinforced by the overwhelming volume of conflicting information. The fight against the “infodemic" is one of the priority frontlines of managing the Coronavirus pandemic. The types of problematic information circulating around the virus are becoming more complex. Unlike previous episodes of widespread disinformation, less of the current content is completely made-up. Instead, facts are often manipulated and yet-to-be-proved theories are touted as ground-breaking discoveries, exploiting existing scientific uncertainties. According to a Reuters Institute analysis on a sample of false content on Covid-19, as much as 59% is based to a degree on true information that has been manipulated, whereas 38% is entirely fabricated.
Although “disinformation” is the more common term to refer to false, harmful and misleading content in media and information ecosystems (and the one used in this paper), the debate on this issue revolves around three main concepts to capture the nuances underlying it, illustrated in Figure 1.
Social media is the source of 88% of the misinformation in the Reuters Institute sample. Mis- and disinformation are also increasingly transmitted via messaging services such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger that are closed to external observers and content moderators, and are therefore less visible and easy to counteract at their origin . These findings highlight the central role that Internet and social media companies continue to have in tackling the problem, as per the OECD policy brief on Combating Covid-19 Disinformation on Online Platforms. The true reach of disinformation is also difficult to estimate, as some research suggests people are likelier to share misinformation than they are to believe it.
Covid-19 misinformation challenges official public health advice and can be difficult to identify. Some of this unfounded medical advice is provided by individuals posing as medical experts or falsely attributing such information to health and research institutions, making it harder to discern its validity . Conversely, rumours casting into doubt the efficacy of social distancing or misleading “information” about how contagion occurs have convinced some to continue their activities in defiance of official guidance .
In many countries, an initial hesitancy by governments to communicate decisively, even about the uncertainty and unknowns surrounding the pandemic has left space for misinformation to proliferate as people searched for answers. Instead, being clear about uncertainty is important to convey scientific advice that is subject to change with emerging evidence . The situation is aggravated by “gaps in the public’s background [health] knowledge that […] should alert public health officials to the ongoing need for effective communication of needed information long before a crisis,” according to a study . These gaps may help explain the public’s propensity to mistake the health properties of substances such as vitamin C and disinfectant. By contrast, those known preventative measures that governments and the health community actively communicated about early on, such as hand-washing and social distancing, are deeper-rooted in the public consciousness . These findings carry important implications not only for better communication but also for investing in greater health literacy .
The adverse consequences of misinformation are seen offline, in cases like that of a fatality caused by the consumption of substances included in exploratory treatments , or when 5G towers were damaged following the spread of unfounded theories connecting the network to the virus . Disinformation is also expected to be used by the anti-vaccination movement once a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available, which could potentially undermine its effectiveness .
Disinformation spread by foreign state-sponsored campaigns specifically seeks to undermine trust in public institutions in OECD countries, which has recovered to 45% after falling to even lower levels of trust following the 2008 global financial crisis and has also enjoyed a small boost during the pandemic . These disinformation campaigns often rely heavily on made-up facts and incite conspiracies, which can more easily thrive by exploiting already low levels of confidence among citizens in targeted countries. An Edelman survey of ten countries found that only 48% trusted their governments as sources of information about the virus.
False claims about the actions, statistics or policies of public authorities, including government and international organisations, are the single largest category (39%) of disinformation identified by the Reuters Institute study, which suggests that “governments have not always succeeded in providing clear, useful, and trusted information to address pressing public questions”. Meanwhile, claims and guidance may also be falsely attributed to official sources, amplifying this problem.
From a behavioural and cognitive standpoint, the wave of disinformation contributes to an information overload that can crowd out important information. Citizens are confronted with large volumes of increasingly conflicting information, which demand a greater effort to navigate and compete for audiences’ finite attention span. The implication for public policy is that increasing the volume of official and truthful information will not necessarily be more effective unless this content is made more compelling and is delivered to various audiences through their preferred channels, and with an understanding of behavioural and psychological biases. This is especially important for young audiences, who tend to access news predominantly via social media.
For instance, with regards to the use of preferred channels, a study in the Misinformation Review recommended that public health officials seek actively to disseminate messages in what the authors class as “conservative media,” noting its audiences are less trusting and more at risk from both misinformation and, as an older group, the Coronavirus . Such an approach is important to ensure key factual messages reach all audiences. It also effectively leverages the channel through which they are relayed, since different groups are likelier to trust media outlets that align with their views.
In sum, disinformation threatens the efficacy of and compliance with the emergency measures being enacted against the Coronavirus. It additionally poses challenges to the economic and social recovery down the road. The polarisation and distrust that derive from it have long-lasting negative implications for government action, democracy and inclusive growth.
A successful response to the pandemic requires a co-ordinated multi-stakeholder effort to tackle the disinformation around it, with clear public leadership (see Figure 5). Strategic and transparent communication should be among the first lines of action for public institutions at all levels. It can be leveraged for several objectives linked to disinformation, such as those presented in Figure 3.
In practice, public communication entails providing information for the public interest that is factual, transparent and separate from political communication. The latter feature is especially relevant to the present context of high political polarisation and fragmentation in many countries, whereby some groups may be more likely to turn away from official information if they perceive it to be politicised. In Italy, for instance, a dedicated law requires that institutions can sustain the distinction between public and political communication. The statements, guidance, and commitments made as part of public communication are also what citizens can hold their governments accountable for in the aftermath of the pandemic.
In the context of the Coronavirus, this type of intervention presents the dual advantage of supporting the effective implementation of emergency measures and satisfying the need for clear and definitive information. Public communication can also be deployed rapidly since virtually all governments have press offices and digital channels in place. These structures are especially important in contexts where pre-existing mechanisms or regulations against disinformation are absent or weak. In order to be effective and foster public trust in government, any activities conducted in this respect must be guided by the principles of transparency, integrity, accountability, and stakeholder participation, set out in the OECD Recommendation of the Council on Open Government (OECD, 2017. See also Figure 6).
Setting a strong mandate for public communication is key to its effectiveness for combating disinformation and gaining public trust. Across OECD countries, public communication is demonstrating its value as a government lever, and as a tool for crisis management and policy delivery. In addition, responses to an OECD survey indicate that governments increasingly rely on disseminating accurate and timely information to counteract mis- and disinformation. As such, it is important that this role be formalised and matched with appropriate resources. For instance, according to the Spanish government, becoming “a source of verified, transparent, continuous, and rapid information” through official channels is crucial to combating this problem. Likewise, it stressed that any gaps in such official information are vulnerable to being filled by false narratives.
To be successful, these efforts can rely on established approaches for strategy, co-ordination, evidence, and transparency, as well as recommended OECD practices for critical risk situations. By contrast, misguided or inconsistent communications risk eroding trust and being counterproductive. However, governments and institutions can do greater damage and amplify the effects of disinformation by not communicating sufficiently and withholding information. Below is an overview of selected practices guiding these responses in the context of Covid-19 and the related “infodemic”:
Public communication is only one of a wide range of responses that can be deployed against disinformation, but it is an essential one and a key element of an open government agenda. Tackling this issue also depends on the digital platforms and media markets through which information is framed and delivered, and on the final consumers of such information. This ecosystem can be improved through several interventions, as per the OECD working paper Governance Responses To Disinformation: How open government principles can inform policy options (upcoming in 2020, see Figure 5).
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 City University of London (2020), COVID-19 Information Overload leads to simple but unhelpful choices, https://www.city.ac.uk/news/2020/april/covid-19-information-overload-leads-to-simple-but-unhelpful-choices (accessed on 15 May 2020).
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The OECD Open Government Unit, in collaboration with the OECD’s Working Party on Open Government is expanding its work in the area of public communication and media to support their contribution to the open government principles of transparency, integrity, accountability and stakeholder participation as well as to better policymaking. If you are interested in being part of an informal experts group and contributing insights to this area of work please get in touch.
Alessandro BELLANTONI (✉ [email protected])
Karine BADR (✉ [email protected])
Carlotta ALFONSI (✉ [email protected])
This is understood as the combination of communication and media governance frameworks (i.e. institutional, legal, policy, regulatory) and principal actors (i.e. governments, traditional and social media companies, citizen journalists).
Public communication is understood as any communication activity or initiative led by public institutions for the public good. It is different from political communication, which is linked to the political debate, elections, or individual political figures and parties. Public communication activities can include the provision of information, as well as consultation and dialogue with stakeholders.
Observations are based on answers to the OECD STIP Covid-19 Watch Survey on the STI policy responses to Covid-19 (hereafter STIP Covid-19 Watch), question “Do you have dedicated arrangements in place for communicating science advice and for refuting misleading information to the public on Covid-19?”
Written comments submitted by the State Secretariat for Communication of the Presidency of the Government of Spain to the OECD on 22 May 2020.