WINCHESTER — Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, said during a virtual meeting Tuesday that there has been an unprecedented amount of misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 virus — including its origin and unproven treatments. She said the falsehoods being spread about the virus could jeopardize efforts to overcome the pandemic, putting people’s health and lives in danger.
“We need to fight back against disinformation and that means policies to stop the spread and educate Americans to better recognize disinformation when they see it,” Wexton said.
To address this problem Wexton, along with Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, last week introduced the COVID-19 Disinformation Research and Reporting Act. The legislation involves a study that would examine the roles disinformation and misinformation have played in the public response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the sources of COVID-19 disinformation and misinformation, including the mechanisms by which they influence public debate.
The bill authorizes $1 million to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to partner with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (National Academies) to conduct the study.
Wexton said her legislation would be included in the next COVID-19 relief bill, which remains in negotiations.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Wexton was accompanied by Dr. Peter Hotez — dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital — as well as Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow at the Wilson Center.
Jankowicz explained that disinformation is false or misleading information that is spread with malign intent — usually by foreign countries or fringe political groups — whereas misinformation is false or misleading information that is passed without that malign intent, often by a well-meaning person. She said it’s possible for disinformation to be planted by trolls and bots in a Facebook group. Then, people will share the content, believing it is true.
Hotez said that in the past online disinformation was “abhorrent and annoying.” This year, he said it’s impacting lives. To date, the novel coronavirus has led to the deaths of approximately 205,000 Americans.
“Now, I think we’ll be able to ascribe a significant component of the 200,000 deaths to disinformation,” Hotez said. “And wow we have to call it out for what it is, which is domestic and international terrorism.”
All three expressed concern about how false information can erode trust in science, government officials, and medical and public health experts.
Jankowicz said that, due to online algorithms, people on social media platforms get recommendations and advertisements designed to reaffirm their beliefs — even if those beliefs are based on disinformation. She said social media companies have been far too slow to react to this disinformation.
“Everyone is much more online than they were pre-pandemic,” Jankowicz said. “We are all using the internet to connect to one another. To stay connected to loved ones that we haven’t seen in months. And so there’s just a lot more eyeballs on these platforms. And that works great for the platforms. They benefit by harvesting our personal information, our preferences, our clicks.”
Wexton’s bill can be viewed at: wexton.house.gov/uploadedfiles/disinformation_research_and_reporting_act_of_2020_--_wexton.pdf.