Combatting the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’ — ensuring trust through reliable information and strong data protection in times of crisis

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By Hilde HARDEMAN

COVID-19 has fundamentally altered our lives. The virus continues to pose a formidable challenge to all of us, our communities, our governments, economies and societies. At a moment when facts about the coronavirus and how to contain it are absolutely critical, trust in conventional sources of information has eroded in many parts of the world. Adeeply unfortunate ‘infodemic’ further complicates the pandemic response. This is especially true in contexts already weakened and polarised by crisis or conflict.

Data collection and analysis will play a key role in identifying and implementing response strategies, particularly through the use of digital technologies. However, here too, mistrust can quickly undermine even the most well intentioned efforts to leverage data and technology to address the crisis. The European Commission’s Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI), under the banner Inform and Protect, welcomes debate and exchange at the Paris Peace Forum on how states and societies can promote open, transparent and reliable use of information and data in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while ensuring respect for privacy rights and preventing the spread of harmful information.

In conflict-affected areas especially, different factors can converge to frustrate response efforts: public health systems are under strain, basic service provision is weak, state authorities might lack legitimacy and their actions are at times met with suspicion. In these circumstances, a public health crisis of the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic can increase the risk of violence and fuel further divisions and social tensions. The ‘infodemic’ that followed the outbreak of COVID-19 highlighted the importance of access to reliable and trustworthy information and the importance of promoting the ability to distinguish between useful and potentially harmful information. This is not a challenge that can be addressed at one level only. It requires engagement at the level of (social) media platforms, at the level of states and international organisations that can help develop international norms and standards, as well as at the level of civil society and grassroots movements that capture and influence local dynamics.

Enhancing cooperation between actors at all levels (local to international) is critical to ensure effective and tailored action is taken in specific contexts and that lessons are learned and translated into global governance responses and models.

The Service for Foreign Policy Instruments supports national and local media, journalists, fact checkers, and civil society organisations in their efforts to promote reliable, transparent and fact-based information on COVID-19, and to debunk myths, rumours and disinformation.

Digital technology will be central to an effective response. However, these technologies raise concerns about privacy and data protection, particularly when legal and regulatory frameworks for the protection of personal data are weak. FPI is actively engaged in Asia and Latin America to share best practices in data protection informed by the EU’s experiences with the General Data Protection Regulation. The pandemic has illustrated how data protection challenges are the same globally and underlines why international cooperation is essential. Our Service focuses on realising tangible outcomes that are of immediate practical use such as supporting legislative activities and organising training for authorities and civil society alike. These measures will help countries develop safeguards, which in turn will help to ensure trust in the use of data in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We look forward to continuing this critical conversation together at the 2020 Paris Peace Forum.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

Hilde Hardeman is Head of the European Commission’s Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI). Hilde has spent over twenty years working for the European Commission, covering external relations and economic and competitiveness issues. From 2014 to early 2017, she served as Deputy Head of Cabinet to Vice-President Katainen in charge of Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness. Between 2011 and 2014, she was in charge of briefing the President of the Commission for meetings with EU Heads of State or Government. Previously, she headed the Commission’s Units for Relations with Russia and with Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. Becoming Head of the Service for Foreign Policy Instruments in May 2017, she returned to the field of external relations, leading a service with over 200 staff, including 90 colleagues in EU Delegations around the world. Her focus in the service is on putting the EU’s Foreign Policy Instruments to the best possible use in achieving the EU’s foreign policy objectives and projecting EU interests abroad.

Hilde holds a PhD in Slavic Philology and History of the University of Leuven after studies at Leuven, Stanford University, Paris, Moscow and Amsterdam. She was visiting professor at the College of Europe, and taught History of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at Vesalius College, Brussels. She published on Russian history and minority right issues.

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