Verified — A global UN initiative to combat COVID-19 misinformation

Trusted communications are essential in any successful response to a public health crisis. But COVID-19 is not just any health crisis. This pandemic is rendering even powerful countries helpless, as it mercilessly takes lives and upends livelihoods in all corners of the world.

Misinformation makes the virus more dangerous. Coronavirus fiction is often circulating faster than fact, endangering the public health response — and ultimately, people’s lives. Purveyors of misinformation are creating slick content and storylines that are filling an information vacuum, where factual content is hard to find and scientific research is currently inconclusive. They promise cures that are not based on medical evidence, and may even be harmful. These people and groups are savvy about deploying narratives that tap into people’s fears, appeal to their need for answers, and provide easy scapegoats.

In many countries, the misinformation surging across digital channels is not only impeding the public health response; it is stirring unrest. There are disturbing efforts to exploit the crisis to advance nativism or to target minority groups. As the strain on societies grows and the economic and social impact becomes even more serious, there is a real danger that these views will cause even more damage.

While misinformation has played a part in this crisis from the beginning, there are signs that its role is increasing. Social media platforms are often driven by algorithms that favor popularity over facts. Several of the biggest platforms have now committed to taking down false news and warning against dubious information. Some posts that lack any basis in fact now redirect users to websites run by the World Health Organization and national health authorities. But this is not enough, because some of the most pernicious misinformation and conspiracy theories are spread by individuals via messaging apps, peer to peer. In this way, misinformation may be spreading online faster than the virus.

That is why the United Nations is collaborating with Purpose, one of the world’s leading social mobilization organizations, to launch Verified, an initiative to combat the growing scourge of COVID-19 misinformation by increasing the volume and reach of accurate, science-based materials.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, explained the goals of the initiative last week: “We cannot cede our virtual spaces to those who traffic in lies, fear and hate,” he said. “To counter it, scientists and institutions like the United Nations need to reach people with accurate information they can trust.”

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It is clear we will not win the communications war with press releases and fact sheets. The Verified initiative will help us to create the compelling content that is so urgently needed. A recent study by the British Medical Journal concluded that over one-quarter of the most-viewed videos on YouTube about COVID-19 contained misleading information. That is not because of a lack of fact-based video content from international institutions and government agencies. Those videos are there, but they are not attracting an audience. We need appealing, entertaining content to compete and break through.

Studies show people are hungry for reliable information — but are finding it difficult to navigate the information glut. According to one well-regarded global survey, the Edelman Trust Barometer, people are searching online for reliable and trusted information about the virus and its effects, but half of those surveyed say such information is difficult to find. A majority, 67 per cent, say they worry there is a lot of fake news and false information being spread about COVID-19.

This and other polls tell us that people are turning towards institutions and scientists in ways we haven’t seen in decades. A long-term decline in trust is now being reversed. I believe the United Nations and its health agency, the World Health Organization, are more important than ever in providing guidance and direction.

My colleagues in United Nations communications are working around the clock to provide and promote health guidance and policy briefs across all our UN platforms and with the news media. People are turning to us for news in unprecedented numbers. But misinformation spreads and metastasizes from person to person, making it essential for institutions to do more than simply issue pronouncements and facts. The Verified initiative will fill this gap by empowering people everywhere to share factual, science-based information with their friends, families and social networks.

Verified will provide information around three themes: science — to save lives; solidarity — to promote local and global cooperation; and solutions — to advocate for people who are suffering the impact of the pandemic. It will also promote recovery packages that tackle the climate crisis and address the root causes of poverty, inequality and hunger.

In order for Verified to have the reach we need, we will invite the global public to volunteer by sharing verified, science-based content with their communities. These ‘digital first responders’ will receive a daily feed of Verified content, optimized for social sharing and with simple, compelling messaging that either directly counters misinformation, or fills an information vacuum.

Verified will partner with United Nations agencies and teams around the world, and with influencers, civil society, business and media organizations to distribute trusted, accurate content. We will also work with social media platforms to root out hate and harmful assertions about COVID-19.

The Verified initiative team, working with First Draft News, is closely monitoring the distribution of misinformation, from where it originates to how and where it travels. We will focus on audiences that are widely receiving and sharing such false and misleading materials.

We will also focus on generating support for vulnerable people and countries through content focused on the best of humanity and opportunities to recover better, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris agreement on climate change.

Thousands of volunteers have already signed onto the Verified platform. If you want to play a part in the solution to misinformation and mistrust around the COVID-19 pandemic — please join.

Verified is supported by the IKEA Foundation and Luminate.

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.