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Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen disinformation on an unprecedented scale

by Cédric Ayisa - July 17, 2020   2077 Views   7 min
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen disinformation on an unprecedented scale


COVID-19: disinformation on a scale not seen since the beginning of the crisis


Accurate (supported by evidence and facts; acceptable margin of error)

In the headline of an article published on June 20, the Journal de Québec states that disinformation is "of an unprecedented scale since the beginning of the health crisis" (translation from French) caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This statement is accurate.

Fear of disease, the climate of uncertainty created by COVID-19, the health measures put in place in several countries and the race for treatment and medication are factors that are pushing people to seek information and answers to their questions. Nowadays, this has become quite a complex task.

An overabundance of information sources and an overabundance of information

Where do we look for this information and these answers? From scientists, health authorities and political leaders, but also from family members, neighbours, colleagues and communities. In 2020, and during the pandemic, it’s often on the Internet, social networks, sharing platforms, 24-hour television news stations and mobile applications of media companies that we seek answers to our questions.

All these sources offer information, but the information is not always the same. There is an overabundance of sources and information on COVID-19 that is complicated to navigate.

Uneven quality and accuracy of information

Moreover, the information shared is not always accurate or of high quality. When a scientific study has been peer-reviewed and published by a reputable scientific journal, it can be relied upon most of the time (there are errors and exceptions, as with everything). The same goes for health recommendations given by health authorities. Responsible political leaders also share recommendations that are scientifically based. The media have review and editing processes.

But on social networks, the Internet and sharing platforms like Whatsapp, there is no editor and few editing and fact-checking mechanisms: anyone can create content and share it.

This situation encourages the proliferation of erroneous content (misinformation) or misleading content (disinformation), or both.

Some definitions: misinformation, disinformation, infodemic

The terms misinformation and disinformation are often used as synonyms. But they are not, and they vary not only in their initial consonant, but also in their intent.

Misinformation is "false information that is propagated", regardless of its intent. The person(s) spreading it may believe it or share it in good faith.

For example: A person who shares the information that 5G technology is responsible for the spread of the virus and who believes it himself or herself is spreading misinformation. The information is inaccurate, but the person who shared it believes it.

Misinformation can lead to disinformation.

Disinformation is false information shared with the deliberate intent to deceive. It is inaccurate or false information disseminated for a specific purpose.

In the context of COVID-19, when a person creates or shares information that links 5G technology to the spread of COVID-19 with the intent to deceive or mislead others, this will be referred to as disinformation.

Infodemic: This is a word coined in 2003 by journalist David Rothkopf in a Washington Post column, a contraction of the words "information" and "epidemic. The term comes from the English word "infodemiology," coined in 2002 by Gunther Eysenbach, a Canadian researcher. The term infodemic, now used by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, is defined as "an overabundance of information - some accurate and some not - that makes it difficult for people to find reliable sources and safe advice when they need it".

Misinformation and disinformation prior to the pandemic

The problem of misinformation and disinformation existed long before the COVID-19 health crisis and can have important consequences for society and its functions. Citizens who have been exposed to misinformation and disinformation may have views that lead to the stigmatization of a group of people and to conflict. Misinformation or disinformation about a politician or political party can change the vote in an election. False statistics or misquotes attributed to individuals can completely threaten the balance of an institution.

Just think of the anti-vaxxer campaigns or attempts to influence election campaigns around the world. In fact, in 2019, on the eve of the federal election, the Canadian government announced the creation of several programs to "help citizens strengthen their critical thinking and resilience to the dangers of online misinformation".

With the advent of the pandemic, the problem of online misinformation and disinformation has intensified.

Misinformation on the rise in times of pandemic

We have checked several reliable data sources in order to confirm the accuracy of the statement in the Journal de Québec that we are fact-checking here, namely that disinformation has reached levels not seen prior to the pandemic.

The statistics gathered by and through these sources lead us to conclude that it is indeed accurate that there has been more disinformation since the beginning of the pandemic. There is also more misinformation.

According to a study conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on misinformation around COVID-19, between January 2020 and March 2020, the number of pieces of information fact-checking in English increased by 900%. This figure comes from data collected from First Draft, the International Fact-checking Network (IFCN) and Google Fact Check Explorer Tool, respectively a platform, a network and a tool dedicated to the fight against misinformation.

  Cumulative English-language fact-checks (Reuters)

(Image: Reuters Institute)

Cristina Tardáguila, deputy director of the International Fact-checking Network (IFCN), also pointed out in an article that there has been an increase in the demand for fact-checking since the beginning of the crisis and that this infodemic poses challenges to fact-checking platforms.

On the messaging application WhatsApp for example, Clara Jiménez Cruz, co-founder of the Spanish platform, says that fact-checking requests have increased from 900 to 1500 - 2000 per day.

In Africa, conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, vaccines and the prescription of fake treatments have also spread rapidly, through applications like Whatsapp, says UNESCO.

In April 2020 alone, Facebook counted 50 million reports of "misleading" content related to COVID-19.

Why fight misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19?

To protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, we need accurate and relevant information. Health misinformation and disinformation can amplify disease outbreaks and have harmful and even fatal consequences, as researchers explain. We can expose ourselves and others to risks of contamination and spread of the virus, for example. Or we can cause our own death and the death of others. In March 2020 in Iran, misinformation about alcohol as prevention against COVID-19 led thousands of people to drink methanol. Nearly 500 people died and almost 3,000 people became ill.

It’s imperative to fight misinformation and disinformation in order to prevent situations that could endanger individuals and societies.

What is currently being done to fight misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19?

Several awareness campaigns have been launched since the beginning of the pandemic. These include the United Nations "Pause Campaign" or the "Stop the Spread" campaign launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) in partnership with the UK government.

Initiatives have also been taken by WHO to reinforce this fight: the creation of appropriate tools and science-based information, partnerships with organizations (such as the International Telecommunication Union, International Center for Journalists) and companies (Facebook, Whatsapp, Rakuten Viber). The aim is to reach as many people as possible with the right information and the necessary elements to strengthen their resilience against misinformation and disinformation.

On the other hand, fact-checking platforms and the International Fact-checking Network (IFCN) are joining forces to "fight infodemic". And in a recent publication, Canadian researcher Gunther Eysenbach suggests four pillars in the fight against infodemic.

Web giants such as Facebook and its subsidiaries (WhatsApp, Instagram) as well as Twitter are taking action to fight this phenomenon through the use of technologies such as artificial intelligence, the labelling of publications, limiting the transfer of dubious information or limiting the number of interactions with certain publications, to name a few. In a joint declaration dated March 2020, several web giants have also reiterated their partnership with governments and organizations to develop tools and campaigns to combat misinformation and disinformation.

How can we fight misinformation on a daily basis?

No one is immune from the consumption and sharing of misinformation and disinformation. We must all be empowered to fight against these growing scourges. With this in mind, we have created a guide that is simple and easy to remember the FACTS Framework to Fight Misinformation and Disinformation. You can find it on this page and share it.

Our goal is to provide you with fact checks that are as accurate as and up-to-date as possible. If you think we've made an error or missed crucial information, please CONTACT US.

Government of Canada

World Health Organization (WHO)

United Nations (UN)

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

The Poynter Institute (IFCN)





Journal of Medical Internet Research

SAGE Journals




Le Journal de Québec

COVID-19: disinformation on a scale not seen since the beginning of the crisis


Accurate (supported by evidence and facts; acceptable margin of error)

 July 17, 2020


Learn more about our fact-checking methodology HERE.

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