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National Priorities to Combat Misinformation and Disinformation for COVID-19 and Future Public Health Threats: A Call for a National Strategy

Cover: National Priorities to Combat Misinformation and Disinformation for COVID-19 and Future Public Health Threats: A Call for a National Strategy
Tara Kirk Sell, Divya Hosangadi, Elizabeth Smith, Marc Trotochaud, Prarthana Vasudevan, Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Yonaira Rivera, Jeannette Sutton, Alex Ruiz, Anita Cicero
Date posted:
March 23, 2021
Publication type:
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security
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The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that health-related misinformation and disinformation can dangerously undermine the response to a public health crisis. Contradictory messaging and active subversion have reduced trust in public health responders, increased belief in false medical cures, and politicized public health measures aimed at curbing transmission of the disease. Setbacks in the COVID-19 response have highlighted that health-related misinformation or disinformation can lead to more infections, deaths, disruption, and disorganization of the effort. The public health response and communication environment in the United States have been disrupted by significant distrust in government, exacerbated by confusing and conflicting messages from leaders. As a result, information voids have developed, easily filled by false or misleading information and directly targeted by perpetrators of disinformation. Taken together, the spread and consequence of public health misinformation and disinformation can lead to a range of outcomes that have national security implications and require effective response.
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to the problem of health-related misinformation and disinformation. No US agency is tasked with leading a unified response, constitutional concerns with free speech limit some potential interventions, and solutions require cooperation across a range of stakeholders. It is time for the United States to address the problem of health misinformation and disinformation through a national strategy to ensure an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to prepare for the challenges of future public health emergencies. The National Security Council should be responsible for developing and overseeing a US strategy for preventing and responding to health-related misinformation and disinformation in public health emergencies, drawing on existing federal agency efforts, expertise, and implementation capabilities. Given the damage already done by misinformation and disinformation, there is an urgent national security and public health need to ensure effective management of public health misinformation and disinformation by increasing accessibility of correct information and reducing the reach of false information through a combination of efforts.

The development of a national strategy to prevent and respond to COVID-19 and future public health misinformation and disinformation is an important first step in the establishment of a solution set to this threat. The priorities that should guide the development of a national strategy are:

Pillar 1: Intervene against false and damaging content as well as the sources propagating it

  • Establish a multiagency national security response effort that prioritizes management of public health disinformation, from both domestic and international sources, as a national security issue in order to prevent disinformation campaigns and educate the public on their use.
  • Establish a national nonpartisan commission that provides neutral evidence-based guidance and recommendations in order to improve the health communication landscape in ways that limit misleading information and ensure accountability for and identification of sources of misleading information.
  • Encourage active, transparent, nonpartisan intervention from social media and news media companies to identify and remove, control the spread of, and curtail generators of false information.

Pillar 2: Promote and ensure the abundant presence and dissemination of factual information

  • Prioritize public health risk communication at the federal, state, and local levels in public health departments and academic research communities by including training and resources on specific messaging and by increasing staffing, funding, and research support.
  • Increase coordination between public health experts and sources of public information, including social media platforms and news media to increase the dissemination of accurate information through multiple channels.

Pillar 3: Increase the public’s resilience to misinformation and disinformation

  • Safeguard and promote health and digital literacy through multiple sources including schools, community organizations, social media, news media, and others to help information consumers choose responsible sources of information and increase their awareness of disinformation tactics and approaches.
  • Improve resources for public verification of questionable content through the development of a robust fact-checking infrastructure with support, training, and guiding principles for fact-checking organizations.

Pillar 4: Ensure a whole-of-nation response through multisector and multiagency collaboration

  • Ensure multisector collaboration in the development of a national strategy to combat public health misinformation through collective planning with social media, news media, government, national security officials, public health officials, scientists, the public, and others.
  • Increase coordination across the range of government stakeholders and conduct a cross-governmental analysis of efforts and responsibilities for managing health-related misinformation and disinformation in order to streamline and organize efforts. Key US agencies include the Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Homeland Security as well as intelligence agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency.



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