Senators Urge President-elect Biden to Address COVID-19 Vaccine Infodemic
WASHINGTON, DC -- In an effort to protect public health and combat disinformation and misinformation, including operations that fuel public vaccine hesitancy, U.S. Senators Jack Reed (D-RI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Gary Peters (D-MI) sent a letter to President-elect Joe Biden urging the incoming Administration to effectively combat the infodemic of disinformation and misinformation threats surrounding COVID-19.
As a new vaccine is made available to the public and additional vaccines are going through the approval process, the Senators warn that the American people will remain targets and vulnerable to both foreign adversaries and domestic actors seeking to foment distrust and hamper U.S. recovery efforts.
“In light of the gravity of the situation and implications for our national security and public health, we urge you to implement significant, coordinated measures across the federal government to counter COVID-19 and vaccine-related misinformation and disinformation, including by expanding DHS’s and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) responsibilities in countering this threat and providing trusted information to the public,” the Senators wrote.
The Senators are also urging the incoming Biden Administration to create a COVID-19 Misinformation & Disinformation Task Force based on legislation (S. 4499) they introduced this fall. The Task Force would be charged with coordinating the government’s analysis of and response to false and misleading information that conflicts with official government health guidance and pandemic response efforts.
Full text of the letter follows:
Dear President-elect Biden:
We applaud your efforts to prioritize measures to counter the tragic and devastating impacts of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). As a new vaccine is being made available to the public and others are undergoing the approval process, we are hopeful that multiple vaccines will soon be widely administrable and distributable. However, this progress could be undermined by what the World Health Organization (WHO) has termed an “infodemic” of COVID-19 disinformation and misinformation. Trends indicate that the volume and intensity of disinformation will only grow as vaccines are approved and distributed. If left unchecked, we are concerned the American people will remain targets and vulnerable to both domestic actors and foreign adversaries seeking to foment distrust and hamper our recovery.
In order to protect our public health and national security, we urge you to coordinate government efforts and establish effective mechanisms for the federal government to combat COVID-19-related disinformation and misinformation.
COVID-19-related disinformation and misinformation impacts not only the health and safety of the American people, but also the integrity of our democratic institutions and the national security of the United States. Throughout 2020, U.S. intelligence officials and diplomats have warned that China and Russia are exploiting this global health crisis to wage disinformation campaigns that seek to sow doubts about the United States’ competency to care for its citizens, undermine faith and trust in government institutions, and deflect attention from China and Russia’s inability to adequately and transparently respond to issues associated with the pandemic. In May, the Global Engagement Center of the Department of State assessed that China was coordinating with Russia to manipulate social media platforms to spread disinformation about the pandemic. In July, a declassified United States intelligence assessment concluded that Russian intelligence agencies and actors are spreading disinformation related to the pandemic. Press reports indicate that in mid-October, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence bulletin warned that foreign adversaries are ramping up malign influence operations surrounding COVID-19.
Misinformation and disinformation surrounding COVID-19 also continues to be spread by domestic actors. As a researcher from Stanford University’s Internet Observatory explained, misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms is being specifically tied “to Moderna and Pfizer as their vaccines show positive results.” On November 19, 2020, Facebook announced that it had labeled 167 million posts as containing misinformation about COVID-19 that was deemed false by the platform’s fact-checkers. An additional 12 million COVID-19 related posts had been removed entirely from Facebook and Instagram because the platforms evaluated that the misinformation in those posts could have led to immediate physical harm. As vaccines become available, it is vital that misinformation and disinformation does not compromise or undermine the health and safety of the American people.
In light of the gravity of the situation and implications for our national security and public health, we urge you to implement significant, coordinated measures across the federal government to counter COVID-19 and vaccine-related misinformation and disinformation, including by expanding DHS’s and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) responsibilities in countering this threat and providing trusted information to the public.
Prior to his being fired by President Trump, DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Christopher Krebs reportedly considered expanding CISA’s Rumor Control website, which was set up to debunk election-related misinformation and disinformation, to include efforts related to COVID-19. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Department of Defense already have rumor control websites, while the Center for Disease Control (CDC) publishes important vaccine content, and coronavirus.gov provides similar information that addresses misinformation and disinformation. But while each of these individual resources provide important information, there isn’t a clear, centralized federal organization analyzing misinformation and disinformation, and publishing content in a coordinated way. We urge you to weigh the various channels delivering federal sources of information and ensure a more comprehensive and coordinated effort to implement these different initiatives.
To that end, we encourage you to follow the model we have laid out in legislation we introduced earlier this year – the COVID-19 Misinformation and Disinformation Task Force Act of 2020 (S. 4499). Our bill would stand up a task force, led by CISA, which would coordinate the government’s analysis of and response to disinformation and misinformation that conflicts with official government health guidance and pandemic response efforts. It would consist of representatives from a variety of federal agencies, including DHS, FBI, State Department, CDC, Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, and FEMA. The Task Force would also be responsible for creating an awareness campaign to not only help inform the public of the risks of misinformation and disinformation related to the pandemic, including explanations of how foreign adversaries may use the pandemic to change American’s opinions or cause panic, but also to promote information literacy. And to ensure that all communities benefit from this work, the legislation would require the Task Force to include appropriate Federal offices to ensure there is a focus on media directed at ethnic and racial minority, rural, and other underserved communities. Our legislation includes provisions to ensure the privacy and civil liberties of Americans are being respected and upheld, including requiring the DHS Chief Privacy Office and the Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to perform ongoing reviews of the work of the Task Force. Lastly the Task Force would be required to share agency and integrated analysis on misinformation and disinformation with the White House Coronavirus Task Force. We believe this legislation provides a useful model for how to organize an effective whole-of-government approach to counter domestic and foreign misinformation and disinformation.
We appreciate your consideration and look forward to working with you on this vitally important issue.