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Charity misinformation in the age of COVID-19


16 March 2020 at 5:18 pm
Maggie Coggan
“It is critical that we remain as diligent about the accuracy of the information we share as we are about every other precaution we take to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe,” UNICEF leader says. 


Maggie Coggan | 16 March 2020 at 5:18 pm


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Charity misinformation in the age of COVID-19
16 March 2020 at 5:18 pm

“It is critical that we remain as diligent about the accuracy of the information we share as we are about every other precaution we take to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe,” UNICEF leader says.  

When UNICEF staff realised a scam message spreading incorrect information about COVID-19 was circulating in several languages under their name, they jumped to take action. 

“It appears to indicate, among other things, that avoiding ice cream and other cold foods can help prevent the onset of the disease. This is, of course, wholly untrue,” Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, UNICEF deputy executive director for partnerships, said in a statement. 

Petri Gornitzka said sharing inaccurate information under a trusted name such as UNICEF was dangerous and wrong, and had the potential to spread paranoia, fear and stigmatisation. 

“It can be difficult in today’s information-rich society to know exactly where to go for knowledge about how to keep yourself and your loved ones safe,” she said. 

“But it is critical that we remain as diligent about the accuracy of the information we share as we are about every other precaution we take to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.” 

She said the organisation was working with the World Health Organisation, government authorities, and social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and LinkedIn to make sure the public knew what was real and what was fake. 

Charities must tread carefully 

While it can be tricky to avoid someone using your name to spread the wrong information, Felicity Weaver, UNICEF Australia’s director of international programs, said charities needed to tread extra carefully in these uncertain times. 

“What we need at times like this is for people to feel empowered and have the right information so that they can protect themselves, their children, and their families. Having the right information enables them to do that,” Weaver told Pro Bono News. 

“So charities really have a responsibility to help get the messages out there and to ensure that when they are sharing information that it is accurate and coming from trustworthy sources.” 

She said it was important that the vulnerable people that charities gave a voice to weren’t placed under any more stress. 

“People who are vulnerable can become more stressed than necessary and rather than doing things that protect themselves, can open themselves up to more harm because they are focusing on the wrong things that aren’t effective instead of simple measures that are effective,” she said. 

And if the wrong information does go public? 

According to Weaver, take action as soon as you can. 

“Just get it corrected as soon as possible and make it very clear where people can find the correct information,” she said. 

“Charities should also ensure they are proactively sharing accurate information from reputable sources, and make that info really accessible for the people who are using their services or supporting their programs.” 

The role of charities in a pandemic 

David Crosbie, the CEO of Community Council Australia, added that the role of charities during a pandemic extended beyond simply supporting the communities they serve. 

“Charities also help build trust in the community. If communities know that charities have their backs, there will be less fear, less hoarding of goods, less ignoring of advice about social isolation and quarantine,” Crosbie told Pro Bono News.   

“If Australia is to manage this pandemic well, it will be because we hold on to a level of trust in each other, and charities are prepared to do what it takes to maintain the strength in our communities, despite all the challenges.”  


Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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