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UNESCO battles COVID-19 'disinfodemic'

False information campaigns about the coronavirus pandemic are a "grave danger" to many people's lives around the world, UNESCO warned.

False information campaigns about the coronavirus pandemic are a "grave danger" to many people's lives around the world, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization warned on Monday.

Bogus stories and conspiracy theories have surged online. The "disinfodemic" has led some people infected by the virus to try unproven treatments and false cures that are dangerous, according to UNESCO, which is leading efforts to counter "fake news" and disinformation.

“There seems to be barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from the origin of the coronavirus through to unproven prevention and 'cures' and encompassing responses by governments, companies, celebrities and others," Guy Berger, UNESCO's director for freedom of expression and media development, told the U.N.'s self-reporting news agency.

“In a time of high fears, uncertainties and unknowns, there is fertile ground for fabrications to flourish and grow," he said. "The big risk is that any single falsehood that gains traction can negate the significance of a body of true facts. When disinformation is repeated and amplified, including by influential people, the grave danger is that information which is based on truth, ends up having only marginal impact.”

Help from big tech

In February, the World Health Organization said it was pushing back against bogus social media claims about the virus such as secret cures, vaccines and Chinese biological weapons.

WHO’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told his agency’s executive board meeting that big tech companies like Google are helping to “combat the spread of rumors and misinformation” about the virus first identified in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019.

“We have worked with Google to make sure people searching for information about coronavirus see WHO information at the top of their search results,” he said. “Social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Tencent and Tiktok have also taken steps to limit the spread of misinformation."

Tech companies are posting prominent links to WHO content and sometimes removing misleading content or making it harder for false claims to be found in online searches and news channels. Google and WHO said searches for “coronavirus” will trigger an “SOS Alert” that sends users to a curated search results page with the U.N. health agency's resources.