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Journal East European Yearbook on Human Rights x

    This study explores the spread of disinformation relating to the Covid-19 pandemic on the internet, dubbed by some as the pandemic’s accompanying “infodemic”, and the societal reactions to this development across different countries and platforms. The study’s focus is on the role of states and platforms in combatting online disinformation.
    Through synthesizing answers to questions submitted by more than 40 researchers from 20 countries within the GDHR Network, this exploratory study provides a first overview of how states and platforms have dealt with Corona-related disinformation. This can also provide incentives for further rigorous studies of disinformation governance standards and their impact across different socio-cultural environments.
    Regarding the platforms’ willingness and efficacy in removing (presumed) disinformation, a majority of submissions identifies a shift towards more intervention in pandemic times. Most submitters assess that this shift is widely welcomed in their respective countries and more often considered as taking place too slowly (rather than being perceived as entailing dangers for unjustified restrictions of freedom of expression). The picture is less clear when it comes to enforcing non-speech related infection prevention measures.
    While the dominant platforms have been able to defend, or even solidify, their position during the pandemic, communicative practices on those platforms are changing. For officials, this includes an increasing reliance on platforms, especially social networks, for communicating infection prevention rules and recommendations. For civil society, the pandemic has brought an increasing readiness – and perceived need – to intervene against disinformation, especially through fact-checking initiatives.
    National and local contexts show great variance at whether platform-driven disinformation is conceived as a societal problem. In countries where official sources are distrusted and/or seen as disseminating disinformation criticism against private information governance by platforms remains muted. In countries where official sources are trusted disinformation present on platforms is seen more negatively.
    While Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram play important roles in the pandemic communication environment, some replies point towards an increasing importance of messaging apps for the circulation of Covid-19-related disinformation. These apps, like Telegram or WhatsApp, tend to fall under the radar of researchers, because visibility of content is limited and scraping is difficult, and because they are not covered by Network Enforcement Act-type laws that usually exclude one-to-one communication platforms (even if they offer one-to-many channels).
    Vis-à-vis widespread calls for a (re)territorialization of their content governance standards and processes amid the pandemic, platform companies have maintained, by and large, global standards. Standardized, featured sections for national (health) authorities to distribute official information via platforms are exceptions thereto.


Matthias C. Kettemann
Prof. dr. Matthias C. Kettemann, LL.M. (Harvard) is head of the research programme “Regulatory Structures and the Emergence of Rules in Online Spaces” at the Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans-Bredow-Institut.

Martin Fertmann
Martin Fertmann is a PhD student at the Leibniz-Institut für Medienforschung | Hans-Bredow-Institut’s research programme “Regulatory Structures and the Emergence of Rules in Online Spaces”.
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