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Political leadership needed to address disinformation

Self-regulation by corporations such as Facebook and Google will not address the worrying health threat of disinformation, a health leader has warned.

Alison Verhoeven, CEO of the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, has called for regulation and political leadership to address the “rampant” spread of disinformation.

Her comments come as a digital industry group prepares to release a self-regulatory industry code for addressing disinformation.

The Digital Industry Group (DIGI), which has Google, Facebook, Twitter and Verizon Media as its founding members, plans to consult with key stakeholders during a virtual roundtable meeting this Friday, to be held under Chatham House rules, ahead of releasing the code.

Croakey Health Media’s submission commenting on the draft code raised many concerns and called for public health experts to be involved in the process, as we reported last year.

Asked to comment on the planned code today, Verhoeven said:

The COVID pandemic has highlighted the very real risks of disinformation to not only health and wellbeing, but also to political stability and the social and economic fabric of societies around the world.

It has also highlighted the weakness of relying on large corporations like Google and Facebook to self-regulate and to take meaningful action to rein in those who deliberately foster disinformation.

While we’ve seen the value of science in rapidly developing COVID vaccines, and the strength of the Australian health system in responding to and minimising the impact of COVID, we’ve also seen rampant disinformation spread across digital and to a lesser extent mainstream media.

There has been very little done to curb this, either through regulation or political leadership. This should be a wake-up call – self-regulation does not work, and disinformation is a threat to us all.”

Kristy Schirmer, principal consultant of ZockMelon, who provided advice for the Croakey Health Media submission, said she hoped DIGI had grasped the importance of public health representation at the table.

DIGI yesterday agreed that a representative of the Public Health Association of Australia could attend the roundtable meeting on Friday.

Dr Becky White, a health promotion practitioner, also stressed the importance of public health engagement. She said:

There is a need to remain adaptable and accountable as new challenges and opportunities arise within the digital space. Public health experts need to be part of any monitoring and feedback loops.

Regulation is important, and there is much that needs to be done outside of this as well.

Digital health literacy is a strong predictor of misinformation belief, we need a strategic and appropriate approach. We need more research on how misinformation and disinformation spreads and impacts, in particular how to triangulate this data across platforms. We need to work with journalists on reporting.”

White said it was important to distinguish between misinformation and disinformation: “Disinformation is different and we risk further alienating people if we advocate for a very strong approach that may be seen to impact on freedom of speech,” she said.

Global research agenda

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization recently released a public health research agenda for managing infodemics, with a focus on:

  • measuring and monitoring the impact of infodemics during health emergencies
  • detecting and understanding the spread and impact of infodemics
  • responding and deploying interventions that protect against the infodemic and mitigate its harmful effects
  • evaluating infodemic interventions and strengthening resilience of individuals and communities to infodemics
  • promoting the development, adaptation and application of tools for managing infodemics.

The WHO and other agencies define an infodemic as an overabundance of information, both online and offline, that includes both misinformation and disinformation.

Last September, the WHO and other agencies warned that “disinformation is polarizing public debate on topics related to COVID-19; amplifying hate speech; heightening the risk of conflict, violence and human rights violations; and threatening long-terms prospects for advancing democracy, human rights and social cohesion”.

The WHO has released tips for helping people navigate the infodemic (as per below); however, this recent report by NPR raises some questions and concerns about the impact of interventions aiming to tackle disinformation.

Source: WHO