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8 lessons from the COVID-19 infodemic: what can libraries do to fight against fake news?

A study has analysed misinformation and fake news arising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo: Johannes Mändle/Unsplash)

Pablo Ramos

A study has analysed misinformation and fake news arising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic

Libraries can play a crucial role in combating mass disinformation and ensuring greater public literacy in the future

In January 2020, China built a huge hospital with hundreds of beds, attracting the world's attention. However, very few people at that time were aware of the magnitude of the situation. The term coronavirus was already being heard in the news, but the information was quite confusing, and as the situation worsened hundreds of conspiracy theories and fake news reports filled an information vacuum which scientists, experts and public officials were unable to address. This phenomenon was described as the first 'global infodemic'.

Now, more than two years later, a researcher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) has published a paper providing a series of recommendations and lessons so that society and libraries can equip themselves with resources and tools to become actively involved in the fight against the infodemic created by this deluge of fake news.

"The objective of this article is to summarize eight issues related to the global infodemic that emerged with the COVID-19 pandemic, with lessons that can provide an opportunity to fight against disinformation and fake news in both society in general and libraries in particular," said Alexandre Lopez-Borrull, a researcher in the GAME group (Research Group on Learning, Media and Entertainment) and member of the UOC's Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences.

The World Health Organization (WHO) coined the term infodemic in March 2020, and defined it as "a large increase in the volume of information associated with a specific topic and whose growth can occur exponentially in a short period of time due to a specific incident, such as the current pandemic". In this scenario, hoaxes, fake news, misinformation and manipulated news reports have a major impact with doubtful intent, which is why they become a "phenomenon [that] is amplified through social networks, spreading farther and faster like a virus," according to the WHO.

"It's also possible to draw lessons from COVID-19 about the relationship of society and citizens with information, how it is consumed, and the digital news diet. On that basis, in view of the fact that misinformation will be with us in the coming years, we must consider the role that libraries can play in the fight against this misinformation," said López-Borrull.


Recommendations for fighting against disinformation

After nearly two years of study, López-Borrull has synthesized the analysis of the first global infodemic, and drawn up a list of eight lessons learned so that all the parties involved can work together towards providing accurate information. Aspects such as the literacy of society at all levels and the proactive participation of libraries as a space for knowledge and information are cornerstones on which critical thinking in the 21st century must be developed in the current context.

"The circumstances that arose at that time were very complicated and difficult to manage, but with the right learning it's also an opportunity to think about how we can fight against disinformation in the future. In that respect, faced with a global problem that is present across society, libraries must play an active role in fighting against the infodemic by providing tools, clearly confirmed arguments and justifications to provide citizens with accurate information that is free of hoaxes," said López-Borrull.

The first of these lessons is that "there is no equidistance between truth and falsehood". In other words, institutions like libraries must address complex issues and conflicts related to information in order to help their users distinguish between objective truth and falsehood, thereby fostering critical thinking. "Libraries don't try to prevent users from finding falsehoods, but do everything possible to help citizens to read critically and to reach valid and well-informed conclusions about what is true and good, and what is false and bad."

The second recommendation is related to the need to adopt multiple approaches and positions against disinformation in a context of uncertainty, since the infodemic can have various aspects. "How COVID-19 was reported showed us that disinformation has many facets and, above all, that there is no single solution or single institution responsible for fighting against it. The coordination of those involved and multiple approaches to disinformation must therefore be a priority if we are to enhance our ability to solve the problem."

For example, libraries can play a key role by adding truthful content, especially relating to more local issues, since if there is a hoax focusing on a social situation or problem, libraries could hold workshops, present specific information, or engage in outreach across their own networks, providing content with added value and quality that has been duly checked. This would help to refute the hoaxes that circulate, and foster literacy, thereby enabling citizens to develop the skills they need for critical thinking and being capable of identifying false and dubious information.

Another of the lessons learned from the infodemic is that we do not need "one" literacy, but instead multiple literacies. In this approach from various fronts, it is necessary to adopt actions and synergies that enable assessment and validation systems to be reinforced. "COVID-19 has also shown us the importance of a new type of literacy which is important for understanding information and knowledge about which we find information that is published, and the ways that science validates and disseminates knowledge, particularly at a time of uncertainty."

Another issue that needs to be addressed is identifying hoaxes in the form of high-quality audiovisual products, since the professional image of this type of content leads the viewer to believe that it is true. In this case, at the time of greatest uncertainty in the early months of the pandemic, various hoaxes and conspiracy theories proliferated systematically, and were accepted by a large proportion of society due to the lack of information. "These products are a challenge for libraries, but they are also an opportunity to learn from the community and work together to check content on the internet, such as in workshops, where users can contribute their knowledge and work collaboratively."

Another of the lessons learned from the infodemic is the major impact that polarized political agendas have in a context of disinformation, especially given the massive use of social media within which there is a continual feedback of a specific news agenda. "Libraries must become active agents in the promotion and consumption of a rich and varied diet of news, but if this is to happen, there must be funds and a press to promote it," explained López-Borrull, who stressed the role of libraries in helping citizens in general and users in particular to improve their understanding and use of social media and digital tools.

Another of the aspects that he focused on is how disinformation overlaps and creates concentric layers of disinformation. This takes place within the strategy that various parties involved in disinformation have engaged in to gain social and media visibility, in order to reach wider audiences than those that would usually listen to them. "Facilities like libraries have the opportunity to become a node in their community's associative fabric, and could also act as an active barometer of various types of disinformation in order to determine the types of resources, workshops and training that could be used to fight against urban myths and legends. This could lead to the development of materials to fight against messages of hate, especially for groups which are most vulnerable due to their age or their sociodemographic status, such as messages based on racism."

The study also addresses the need for information professionals to develop new skills related to disinformation. The role of libraries as environments which promote, establish and curate content on social networks is important, as they could provide new digital information services. "Libraries could carry out verification projects or services based on the sociodemographic conditions in their community of users," he said, offering a pragmatic alternative for fighting against other infodemics in the future.

Finally, this work highlights the need for more open science, rather than an overload of documentation, as a key tool for fighting against the infodemic. Easy access to validated and confirmed content would encourage the sharing of information in a society in which scientific knowledge is increasingly important in decision-making.

"Libraries have a key role to play within society in terms of guaranteeing greater literacy and improving citizens' skills as regards being able to distinguish between false information and truthful information," said López-Borrull, who stressed that the objective is for people to be able to identify fake news and validate content for themselves. "But in the meantime, we must implement strategies and tools to eliminate false information and fill the communication channels with true and verified content from reliable sources."


This UOC research supports Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 3, Good Health and Well-being; 4, Quality Education; and 12, Responsible Production and Consumption.


Lopez-Borrull, A: 'COVID-19: 8 lessons from the First Global Infodemic that should be an opportunity for libraries', Boletim do Arquivo da Universidade de Coimbra, extra 1 [2022], pp. 83-103.



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UOC experts

Photograph of Alexandre López-Borrull

Alexandre López-Borrull

Expert in: Open science, open access, scientific communication, scientific research journals, legal aspects relating to digital information

Knowledge area: Information and documentation.

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