How governments address COVID-19 misinformation--for better or for worse

February 01, 2021

As COVID-19 spread across the world, so did conspiracy theories and false information about the virus. This proliferation of misinformation--labeled an "infodemic" by the World Health Organization (WHO)--makes it difficult to identify trustworthy sources and can threaten public health by undermining confidence in science, governments, and public health recommendations.

The consequences of misinformation can be tragic: hundreds died and thousands were poisoned in Iran after consuming toxic methanol alcohol, falsely believing it could cure COVID-19.

In a new article in the Journal of Public Health Policy, legal scholars at NYU School of Global Public Health and the global health organization Vital Strategies identify five approaches countries have taken to address misinformation about COVID-19. Their tactics ranged from helpful practices like creating media campaigns sharing accurate information to harmful practices like suppressing whistleblowers and factual information, or disseminating disinformation (the intentional spread of false information) on their own. Several approaches criminalized expression, eliciting human rights concerns, given that international law protects freedom of expression.

"Governments can best address COVID-19 misinformation by disseminating factual information, protecting expression, ensuring strong protections for whistleblowers, and supporting an independent media environment," said study author Jennifer Pomeranz, assistant professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health.

"On top of the human rights concerns, overzealous prosecution of expression undercuts public health efforts by sowing mistrust between communities and their government," said study author Aaron Schwid, Director of Public Health Law at Vital Strategies.

To identify the range of methods governments used to address COVID-19 misinformation, the researchers conducted a content analysis of international media coverage. Using keywords including "misinformation," "disinformation," and "fake news," they analyzed hundreds of articles from February through May 2020.

The observed government actions, whether helpful or harmful, fell into five general categories: The researchers stress that, in the face of a pandemic, governments should broadly protect expression and ensure a free and diverse media environment, as accurate reporting by journalists is one of the most powerful tools to reduce misinformation and disinformation. In contrast, censoring or penalizing expression can drive ideas underground, complicating efforts to correct or refute false information.

"Censorship--just like misinformation--undermines public health; both create a state of uncertainty, which motivates people to seek out information from less transparent sources," said Pomeranz.

"The solution to misinformation is for governments to embrace the freedom of expression and encourage more speech--not less--and increase their own dissemination of factual information," Schwid said.
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About NYU School of Global Public Health

At the NYU School of Global Public Health (NYU GPH), we are preparing the next generation of public health pioneers with the critical thinking skills, acumen, and entrepreneurial approaches necessary to reinvent the public health paradigm. Devoted to employing a nontraditional, interdisciplinary model, NYU GPH aims to improve health worldwide through a unique blend of global public health studies, research and practice. The School is located in the heart of New York City and extends to NYU's global network on six continents. Innovation is at the core of our ambitious approach, thinking and teaching. For more, visit: http://publichealth.nyu.edu/

About Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible. To find out more, please visit http://www.vitalstrategies.org or Twitter @VitalStrat.

New York University

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