SPEECH published on 07 May 2020

Liz Corbin's address to the UN/ITU High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation Webinar

The ‘infodemic’ – misinformation and disinformation during COVID-19

Thank you for inviting me here today (29 April 2020). It has been very interesting listening to the previous speakers. A quick introduction if you don’t know the European Broadcasting Union – our community represents 116 public service media organizations across 56 countries.

I don’t know if you noticed but the speakers from Google and Facebook didn’t mention fake news once. And fake news is also not in this question for this section. But I will be using that phrase today. I know very well why people don’t like the phrase “fake news” but the point for me is not about the political or academic arguments, it’s about what real people, audiences, the public think we’re talking about. And to make it sound more polite or academic moves us one step further away from them – it excludes them. 

So, I’m going to talk about fake news because everybody knows what fake news is.

For the purposes of answering this question today I’m separating fake news into three categories:

-    Short-lived fake news
-    Mad fake news
-    Persistent fake news

There are different tactics we can use for different types of fake news.

Let’s take some recent examples and what EBU members and other news organizations have done about them. 

A dangerous but short-lived example is an imposter Twitter account which popped up and declared that the British Prime Minister, had died. The EBU has teamed up with a number of international news organizations to create the Trusted News Initiative. Participants in this initiative send out alerts to prevent the spread of imposter or high impact fake content. The BBC moved quickly to send an alert on this. Twitter was alerted and the account was removed. It was a dangerous piece of content but quick action – within hours - by a quality news organization and on this occasion a quick reaction from Twitter, meant that it was short-lived.

Then there is the mad but high impact fake news. The belief that there is a connection between 5G and coronavirus is stuff of fantasy, but people have read it on social media – let’s be clear, they have not read, seen or heard this from news organizations. And they have believed it to such an extent that they have been attacking mobile network masts. This is crazy, this is a major real-life impact. So how did we tackle this? Real-life impact creates real headline news. And that has meant the debunking of this myth has been high profile and loud enough to reach most audiences. But all myths can resurface so we need to remain vigilant. And that is also a responsibility of the platforms which host this content. We’ve heard about the efforts they’re making but it is NOT GOOD ENOUGH. News organizations are doing their job calling out this fake news more and more but if this content is still out there in time it will regain strength. In a recent Reuters Institute survey of fake news posts identified by fact-checkers: On Twitter, 59% of the posts were still up. On YouTube, 27%. And on Facebook, 24% of them were still there.

And finally, to the persistent. Some fake news is apparently immune from fact-checking. I am sure all of you have seen posts about cures or things you can do or take to prevent you getting COVID-19. From gargling with hot water every 15 minutes, to drinking camel urine, there is no end to this fake news. So how do we tackle this darkness?

You can warn everybody about the danger of darkness – you can tell them how to avoid it, tell them the risks it poses. That’s media literacy. You can give them a torch to find their way safely through it. That’s fact-checking. But to be really effective against persistent fake news you need floodlights in these dark places - large volumes of trusted and accurate content that public service news organizations produce. 

Despite very challenging lockdown circumstances EBU members increased news programming by more than 20% in March. We’ve seen audiences up substantially across all platforms. And happily that has also been accompanied by an increase in trust ratings. Audiences of all types know where to go for help to understand this crisis. Even younger people have been tuning into TV evening news bulletins!

High quality, trusted news is the best antidote to this infodemic. That means:
-    We need reliable funding for public service journalism.
-    It means freedom to be able to do our journalism without restriction.
-    And it means commitment from the major technology platforms to prioritize real news content rather than what we see now which is little more than a free for all. 

If we want to take this more seriously – which I hope we do - we need to shine a giant light.

What people often forget is that the public don’t need to be told what’s real and fake they need to be able to see things for themselves and for that they need news which is trustworthy.

Thank you

Liz Corbin is Deputy Media Director and Head of News at the EBU.

Contact detail

Jo Waters
Senior Communications Officer

+41 22 717 2501