Global Insights: COVID-19 and the Information Space

The essays in this “Global Insights” series are the product of six workshops held by the International Forum for Democratic Studies during the spring and summer of 2020. These workshops—which gathered civil society representatives, journalists, academics, researchers, donor organizations, and policymakers—aimed to assess the likely challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic would pose to the democratic health and integrity of the “information space,” or the broad public square in which societies exchange information and debate ideas. The analyses presented in these essays span a range of topics—media sustainability, authoritarian influence, fact-checking, research partnerships, data privacy—affecting regions like Europe, North and South America, and Africa.

Read the full essay collection: COVID-19 and the Information Space: Boosting the Democratic Response

Read the editor’s overview essay: Sickness and Health in the Information Space: Reflections from the First 10 Months of COVID-19 by Dean Jackson (International Forum for Democratic Studies)


Key insights & Related Essays

COVID-19 and the Future of Media Sustainability: The COVID-19 pandemic compounded trends adversely affecting media revenue worldwide. In response to these challenges, many news outlets are finding new audiences and revenue through business-to-business services, nonprofit vehicles for receiving philanthropic funding, joint production and distribution efforts, and new means of digital distribution such as publishing directly to popular messaging applications.

Authoritarian Disinformation and Media Influence: Outlets funded by authoritarian regimes with international reach are using biased and inaccurate reporting alongside “COVID diplomacy” to undermine the reputation of democracy. The best solution for these challenges is not to prohibit media from authoritarian states, but instead to increase support for fact-based, high-quality media outlets. During a time of broader strategic engagement between the Russian and Chinese governments, including the deployment of similar tactics and narratives in their information operations, democracies should attempt to better understand where authoritarian disinformation efforts overlap and encourage greater societal resilience in those areas.

Fact-checking Innovations and the Pandemic: Fact-checking during a pandemic touches on issues of life or death, even as fact-checkers struggle to keep pace with the speed and scale of disinformation in digital environments. Fact-checkers are adapting to this challenge through new methods, such as automation and crowdsourcing, as well as through new partnerships between fact-checkers, researchers, and policymakers.

COVID-19 and the Weaknesses of the Digital Information Space: The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the notion that, in the social media age, the most use­ful news, reporting, and insights often cannot outpace misleading or sensational content. This development only compounds the need for researchers to ask questions that reveal how average citizens reckon with mis- and disinformation, what role platforms play, and what can be done to protect the information space. Researchers and civil society should also seek ways to improve communication from public interest actors and new models for curating knowledge and information online. Nascent efforts allow actors from a wide array of sectors to specialize and could provide valuable, shared access to essential resources such as platform data. These efforts should be encouraged.

Governing the Intersection of Public Health, Big Tech, and Privacy: As democratic and authoritarian governments alike turned to technology to respond to COVID-19, a chorus of actors raised questions about privacy and other implica­tions for citizens. If tech-enabled COVID-19 interventions are incompatible with key principles of human rights and democracy, transparent joint governance by government, rights watchdogs, and the private sector is the best way to resolve tensions between measures to protect public health, oversight of technology, and respect for citizens’ rights and freedoms.