The Other War: The Battle Against Digital Misinformation

In the matter of a few short weeks, the entire globe was suddenly faced with an unexpected challenge: Fight and win a hidden war that began with a global surprise attack: COVID-19.

Within moments of the first stories of this novel sickness emerging from Wuhan, China, various media and social media outlets began releasing information about the new illness.

"Mysterious illness emerges in China: Bioterrorism?"

"United States Democrats seek to raise coronavirus alarm to injure the President's image."

"Just like the flu? Don't believe the panic about COVID-19."

In the days to follow, millions of clicks would lead to stories seeking to capitalize on the epidemic with articles full of doom-and-gloom headlines and little context. While international health organizations attempted to track and explain the unfolding situation, news media and social media accounts began to spread their own infectious virus. Suddenly, humanity faced two different battles simultaneously: A global pandemic and a tsunami of digital misinformation.

The First Disease: Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 & COVID-19

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the novel coronavirus is the cause of the disease COVID-19. The rapid worldwide spread of the virus over a couple of months led to WHO declaring a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has disrupted operations in a way rarely seen, with prolonged impacts on business continuity, mode of working and growth patterns. Our moral, human duty as agile knowledge workers must be to respond to the COVID-19 crisis with both short-term and long-term actions that start small and scale up in order to increase resilience to future disruptions and prepare for growth in a new, nimble economy and society.

The Second Disease: Digital Misinformation

During these seemingly dark times, individuals around the world are turning to social media for answers on how to track the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the fatal cases of COVID-19. Unfortunately, our dependence on social platforms for truth and reason makes us vulnerable and at the mercy of the unregulated digital ecosystem. This online, truth-from-anywhere system has exploited humanity's mental and emotional state through collective sensemaking and computational propaganda - concepts that may seem foreign, yet we take part in every day. We will take a look at both below.

The coronavirus is creating a new, broader misinformation environment than has ever existed. While the 24-hours news cycle about the virus has played out differently along various ideological lines, every worldview has fallen victim to or has peddled misinformation. Leading social media and disinformation researchers think that global coronavirus fears are blowing misinformation to new levels because of a perfect storm: more people are spending time online than ever before and are looking for information on exactly the same thing and lacking clear authoritative sources.

The unexpected reality of social media is that we are now able to learn about information in our social world in extremely rapid and far-flung ways. Rather than wait for the evening paper to arrive with the day’s news, we can see through the eyes of medical professionals in overwhelmed hospitals as well as inside the homes of billions of people as they self-isolate - in real-time. We can learn about coronavirus news in other parts of the world as well as our own backyards within seconds and minutes. While it may seem tempting to simply turn the digital feed off, social media is also playing an important part of staying socially connected with one another - an incredibly important aspect for our psychological health as we all engage in the novel concept of social distancing.

However, we ultimately succumb to the power of misinformation when we lose collective trust in ‘official’ sources—e.g. regulatory bodies charged with managing the response. For example, a report from French health authorities regarding the use of Ibuprofen to treat COVID-19 symptoms quickly went viral after stating that the drug may worsen the symptoms. [1] The report gained steam across the world before CDC & WHO officials refuted the claims. [2] Unfortunately, before accurate information could be relayed, the damage was done.

Today, unsubstantiated and outright false information about the coronavirus are popping up across the internet without regulation or censorship. Posts, texts and email chains that actively spread misinformation have gone to such viral extremes that local law enforcement and federal agencies have had to issue public responses to give proper information before rash or dangerous decisions are made.

Statements From Professionals About Digital Misinformation and COVID-19

As the digital misinformation war wages on, online experts have begun to weigh in on their thoughts and advice on how to take the offensive:

→     Kate Starbird describes “Collective Sensemaking” as something that human beings are more or less wired to do automatically, drawing from research on the sociology of disaster. “When information is uncertain and anxiety is high, the natural response for people is to try to “resolve” that uncertainty and anxiety. In other words, to figure out what is going on and what they should do about it. And so we attempt to come together — either in physical spaces or using communication tools like our phones and now our social media platforms — to “make sense” of the situation. We gather information and try to piece together an understanding, often coming up with, and sharing, our own theories of causes, impacts, and best strategies for responding. And these theories inform the decisions we make and the actions we take.” [3]

→     Another concept is “Computational Propaganda” - This concept is coined by author Samuel Woolley in his work “The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth”. Woolley speaks about digital anonymity and the perception of division from being online and not face-to-face. Several computational propaganda techniques were previously applied successfully using Facebook, Twitter, and even Social bots. Ultimately, advanced technology has grown in the ability to tell fake stories and confuse the weak (especially the young and the old) to the benefit of companies and bad actors. Dr. Woolley says we need to fight back and protect vulnerable individuals. New laws should make fake posts illegal and vigorously policed on social media. [4]

Soldiers In Lockdown: Our Role In Fighting Misinformation

As humans, we have an inherent right to have access to true and correct information. Therefore, we must take the initiative as soldiers on the frontline of this battle to vet the authenticity of the news we watch and consume. This is especially true during this period of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Jeff Hancock, a Stanford Scholar, “our uncertainty about the novel coronavirus can lead us to believe anything” - hence, we need to be extremely careful with what we spread. Our greatest ammunition in the fight is credible, hopeful, and knowledge-based content that comes from experts in the field. For example, in this time I will attempt to only use my social media platforms to share credible information around COVID-19 through expert media scans and analysis.

Information is power only if it is genuine and derived from the rigor of the scientific method. As a rule: say no to anything that may appear to be digital misinformation. How to tell? Ensure that any content you consume is written by a reputable source with expert analysis. A great reminder comes from Jane Goodall’s powerful message about fighting the coronavirus pandemic: “Together, we shall get through this difficult time, and shall have learned what is truly important in life: family, friendship, love, and above all, our health.” [5]


1.    No scientific evidence that ibuprofen worsens COVID-19 symptoms, Health Canada, 2020-03-20

2.    France says ibuprofen may aggravate coronavirus. Experts say more evidence is needed, CNN, 2020-03-18

3.    How a Crisis Researcher Makes Sense of Covid-19 Misinformation, Medium, 2020-03-09

4.    Sam Wooley, “The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth” (PublicAffairs, 2020)

5.    Dr. Jane Goodall’s Messages On Hope & Coronavirus, CleanTechnica, 2020-03-24

Sign up to our newsletter

Subscribe your email to receive our exclusive newsletter directly in your inbox.

By clicking Sign Up you're confirming that you agree with our Terms and Conditions.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Next ✓
or press Enter ↵
Next ✓Back
or press Enter ↵
Please fill required field
Please fill required field
Please select one
* Please fill the field
Please enter a valid email
Next ✓Back
or press Enter ↵
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.