WASHINGTON, DC – Disinformation about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a serious public health risk that has contributed to the spread of the virus and loss of life.

In an effort to address, analyze, stop, and counter the rapid spread of COVID disinformation, U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) is teaming up with Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-RI) on legislation authorizing $1 million for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to conduct research into disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The COVID-19 Disinformation Research and Reporting Act would examine the role of disinformation and misinformation on the public response to COVID-19 and the role that social media has in promoting the spread of false information.  The measure has been endorsed by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Disinformation can be particularly dangerous during public health emergencies because false information can erode trust in science, government institutions, and public health experts.  Disinformation, which is purposefully deceptive, and misinformation, which is false but not necessarily spread maliciously, can also make it harder to effectively disseminate accurate information to vulnerable communities.  According to Senator Hirono’s office, in the first three months of the outbreak, disinformation and misinformation about COVID-19 sent an estimated 5,800 people to the hospital and cost at least 800 lives.

Examples of COVID-19 disinformation include attempts to link the pandemic to biological warfare, 5G technology, and efforts to peddle false cures and fuel anti-vaccination sentiment.

“We’ve got to stop the spread of COVID as well as the spread of disinformation that threatens public health.  This legislation will take an evidence-based approach to thwarting disinformation.  It’s a smart investment that will help save lives and strengthen our national capacity to effectively respond to public health emergencies now and in the future,” said Senator Reed.  “We need to couple that with information literacy to provide the skills and tools critical to combatting misinformation and disinformation.”

“200,000 Americans have died as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. As we work to curb infections across the country, we also face an infodemic caused by the viral spread of false information on the internet—particularly on social media.  The COVID-19 Disinformation Research and Reporting Act will help our country get to the bottom of where coronavirus disinformation came from, how it spread, and how to mitigate the impact of COVID-related misinformation and disinformation going forward,” said Senator Hirono.

The  COVID-19 Disinformation Research and Reporting Act  seeks to analyze and help identify the origin of disinformation campaigns, trace their spread, and help mitigate the negative impact of COVID-related misinformation and disinformation.  The bill also seeks to uncover financial incentives resulting from the spread of misinformation and potential strategies to mitigating such tactics.

In addition to Hirono and Reed, the COVID-19 Disinformation Research and Reporting Act is also co-sponsored by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

Companion legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) and is cosponsored by Representatives Don Beyer (D-VA), Sean Casten (D-IL), Bill Foster (D-IL), and Jamie Raskin (D-MD).