‘Infodemic’ of COVID-19 disinformation bad for Ukrainians health, study for UN finds

  • Research offers insight into spread of disinformation about pandemic online, main themes of false narratives, and gives recommendations for government, fact-checkers, influencers and public

Ukrainians’ health could be damaged by an ongoing “infodemic” of false and misleading information about the novel coronavirus pandemic, research carried out for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has found.

From March to November 2020, researchers tracked more than 30 million social media messages using the advanced social media monitoring and analytics platform SemanticForce. The study identified over 250,000 messages with disinformation narratives related to COVID-19 in Ukrainian online media, forums, blogs, messenger and social networks.

The study found that false narratives decrease people's willingness to comply with public health guidance (wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, etc.) and make them less likely to recommend vaccination to vulnerable people in their social circle. Moreover, an uncontrolled infodemic had the potential to significantly increase exposure to the COVID-19 disease, the study concluded.

The false narratives identified included fake information related to wearing masks, conspiracy theories about the origin and even existence of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 disease, and false rumours about the effectiveness of coronavirus testing and vaccines.

UNDP Resident Representative in Ukraine Dafina Gercheva said the studied showed the infodemic is a real threat to public health in Ukraine, and that it was important for the government to join efforts with non-government organizations, fact-checkers and social media influencers to fight it.

“Conspiracy theories, rumours and malicious disinformation can quickly go viral on social media, especially when there is a low level of public trust in state institutions,” Gercheva said.

“Our study found that by combining the efforts of government, the media, influencers, and other trusted sources, the spread of reliable information can be promoted, and the danger of disinformation about COVID-19 countered.”

In combination with the social media monitoring, the study quizzed 1,000 Ukrainians in a survey of the public’s views of the pandemic. Among the survey’s findings were that around a third of Ukrainians believe their chances of contracting the novel coronavirus are low. The public’s top-three preferred information sources are social media (42 percent), TV (26 percent), and doctors and medics (24 percent). Despite that, Ukrainians said the sources they trust the most are personal doctors and medics (39 percent) and doctors and healthcare professionals (via media) (29 percent), while only 27 percent trust social media as a source of reliable information.

UNICEF Representative in Ukraine Lotta Sylwander underlined that the risks of misinformation have never been higher.

“The infodemic threatens to augment vaccine hesitancy, which in turn could complicate the introduction of new vaccines and erode public trust in the healthcare system,” Sylwander said.

“As the pandemic continues to create uncertainty and anxiety, there is an urgent need for stronger action and a coordinated approach to address fake news and disinformation,” she added.

“Without the appropriate trust and correct information, immunization campaigns will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive.”

The study offered a range of recommendations for government, media and social media platforms on how to fight the COVID-19 infodemic. The government was recommended to set up a centralized COVID-19 Command Centre to coordinate key groups (the government, non-governmental organizations, fact-checking organizations, media, influencers). To counter the high level of distrust in the government, it should systematically engage influencers of various categories to promote public health messaging, the study said.

Other recommendations include leveraging humour to increase the spread of important public health information, supporting fact-checking organizations with grants, media collaborations and special sections on web sites, and encouraging social media to customize their algorithms to tag disinformation and reduce its occurrence in social media users’ news feeds.

Background

UNDP is the leading development agency operating in Ukraine, integrating the efforts of its sister UN agencies across a variety of projects and programmes, including the UN Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme in Ukraine. Through forging partnerships in Ukraine with national, regional, and local governments, civil society, and the private sector, UNDP strives to support the country in its efforts to eliminate poverty, develop people’s capacity, achieve equitable results, sustain the environment, and advance democratic governance.

UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

SemanticForce is the leading end-to-end media intelligence company with offices in four countries and 300+ enterprise customers from over 20 countries. The platform created by SemanticForce features advanced coverage, including news, social media and threats intelligence within one powerful ecosystem. Fortune 500s that leverage SemanticForce’s vision and innovation include Samsung, L'oreal, Adidas, Corteva, Philips, Lenovo and other leading brands and agencies. Since 2014 SemanticForce has also operated in the domain of disinformation intelligence, working with non-governmental organizations, fact-checkers, social networks, and governments.

Media Contacts
UN entities involved in this initiative
UNDP
United Nations Development Programme