Democrats urge Biden to address ‘infodemic’ of COVID-19 disinformation, misinformation

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Democratic lawmakers on Thursday urged President-elect Joe Biden to take immediate steps after taking office to combat the “infodemic” of disinformation and misinformation surrounding COVID-19.

“Understanding and addressing misinformation – and the wider phenomena of declining public trust in institutions, political polarization, networked social movements, and online information environments that create fertile grounds for the spread of falsehoods – is a critical part of our nation’s public health response,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Biden.

They pointed to concerns around emerging COVID-19 vaccines leading to a further spike in online disinformation and misinformation, noting their worry that such content would lead to fewer Americans getting vaccinated.

The letter was spearheaded by Rep. Anna Eshoo (Calif.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health. Others Democrats who signed were Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (Va.), House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (Calif.), Senate Rules Committee ranking member Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, chair of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection and commerce.

“The COVID-19 infodemic is about to dangerously intersect with a misinformation-laden anti-vaccine movement that has led to tragic consequences in our country,” the lawmakers wrote.

To combat that threat, the lawmakers urged Biden to appoint Joan Donovan — research director at the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy — to serve as a misinformation expert on his COVID-19 task force.

“As we seek to galvanize a whole-of-society effort to address these twin threats, attention to the threat of misinformation to that response will be critically important,” they wrote.

The World Health Organization earlier this year described the surge of misinformation and disinformation around COVID-19 as an “infodemic,” noting that the amount of time that it had spent working to debunk “myths and rumors” around the virus.

A group of health workers in May warned major social media platforms that an increase in COVID-19 misinformation was endangering lives.

“Tech companies have tried to act, taking down certain content when it is flagged, and allowing the World Health Organization to run free ads. But their efforts are far from enough,” more than 100 doctors and nurses wrote to the social media groups.

On Thursday, a separate group of House Democrats urged Biden to make addressing disinformation and misinformation a major priority once in office.

Members of the Congressional Task Force on Digital Citizenship led by Jennifer Wexton (Va.), Don Beyer (Va.), and David Cicilline (R.I.) sent a letter to Biden advocating for him to prioritize research, education and transparency to combat online foreign and domestic disinformation and misinformation threats.

“Disinformation and misinformation are not partisan issues,” the House Democrats wrote. “They affect our collective public health, safety, and democracy.”

The lawmakers asked that Biden take steps including launching a “multiagency digital democracy task force” to develop a federal strategy to combat online disinformation, along with funding media literacy programs, and to collaborate with foreign allied nations in fighting this issue.

“The United States has fallen behind global allies in understanding and working to combat disinformation and misinformation, and foreign adversaries have identified it as a point of weakness for our nation,” the lawmakers wrote. “We encourage you to work with researchers, scholars, and civil society to understand the impact of disinformation and misinformation on American society and we stand ready to assist you in putting forward these new initiatives.”

Tags Adam Schiff Amy Klobuchar Anna Eshoo Coronavirus coronavirus misinformation COVID-19 COVID-19 task force David Cicilline Disinformation infodemic Jan Schakowsky Jennifer Wexton Joe Biden Mark Warner

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