COVID-19: Need to tackle online misinformation - GulfToday

COVID-19: Need to tackle online misinformation

Only good on paper

António Guterres.

A new UN initiative to push back against the tide of lies and hate that has risen in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic, by empowering people worldwide to share accurate information to help save lives and promote global solidarity, is a welcome and timely step.

The launching by UN Secretary-General António Guterres of “Verified,” which will create a cadre of “digital first responders” to increase the volume and reach of trusted, accurate information surrounding the crisis may go a long way in helping deal effectively with hate mongers.

Misinformation spreads online, in messaging apps and person to person. Its creators use savvy production and distribution methods. To counter it, scientists and institutions like the United Nations need to reach people with accurate information they can trust.

The pandemic has been unleashing a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering and there is also a dire need for an all-out effort to end hate speech globally.

Migrants and refugees also have been vilified as a source of the virus and subsequently denied access to treatment, while contemptible memes suggest that older persons are the most expendable in the pandemic.

Journalists, health professionals, aid workers, human rights defenders and others have been targeted simply for doing their jobs.

Media, especially social media, needs to remove racist, misogynist and other harmful content.

Everyone, everywhere, needs to stand up against hate, treat each other with dignity and take every opportunity to spread kindness, as Guterres earlier pointed out.

Last year, the Secretary-General launched the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech to enhance these efforts, which outlines commitments that include supporting countries in policy development.

Hate speech is a menace to democratic values, social stability and peace. Silence can signal indifference to bigotry and intolerance, even as a situation escalates and the vulnerable become victims. Social media and other forms of communication are being exploited as platforms for bigotry. Public  discourse  is  being weaponised for  political  gain  with  incendiary  rhetoric  that  stigmatises  and  dehumanises minorities, migrants, refugees, women and any so-called “other”.

It is good that under ‘Verified,’ information will be provided around three themes: science – to save lives; solidarity – to promote local and global cooperation; and solutions – to advocate for support for populations that have been impacted by COVID-19.

People across the world need to sign up as “information volunteers” with Verified, to share trusted content to keep their families and communities safe and connected.

The volunteers - described as “digital first responders” - will receive a daily feed of verified content that will be optimised for sharing on social media platforms, containing simple yet compelling messaging that either directly counters misinformation with facts, or fills in any gaps.

What lends credence to the project is that ‘Verified’ will partner with UN agencies and others, including influencers, civil society, business and media organisations, to distribute trusted, accurate content, while also working with social media platforms to root out hate and harmful information about COVID-19.

As pointed out by Melissa Fleming, who heads the UN communications department, in many countries, misinformation spread via digital channels is impeding pandemic response and stirring unrest.

There are disturbing efforts to exploit the crisis to advance nativism or to target minority groups, which could worsen as the strain on societies grows and the economic and social fallout kicks in.

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