Memory institutions are uniquely positioned to combat COVID-19 disinformation

Memory institutions have an active role to play in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and the disinformation that surrounds it, particularly given that they are uniquely positioned to become the main references for credible information.

However, challenges remain when it comes to operating in the digital environment and promoting information literacy among the consumers of the growing body of information on the pandemic.

These two key messages came to light during a webinar on how archives, libraries and museums can help combat the disinfodemic amid COVID-19.

Held on 27 August, the webinar brought together an international lineup of experts in the fields of information science, library studies, records management and audience engagement for cultural organizations. Over 200 participants joined the webinar live from around the world.

Dr Fackson Banda, Chief of the Documentary Heritage Unit at UNESCO, who moderated the discussion, started by summarizing MoW’s key responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and reiterating the importance of memory institutions as custodians of reliable information. He asked the panelists to reflect on their institutions’ experiences with COVID-19 and the emerging concept of “disinfodemic”, as distinct from “infodemic” due to its insidious nature.

Dr Anthea Seles, the Secretary General of the International Council on Archives (ICA), spoke about the need to deconstruct stereotypes among decision makers about archives being paper-based, dusty old records that have no connection with the present. She highlighted ICA’s initiative, Archives are Accessible, which showcases archives around the globe that offer digital services and records, and are also actively involved in documenting the current pandemic with integrity. The latter effort is in effect what will help ensure the accountability of policymakers in the future.

To illustrate the unique opportunity for memory institutions in the current crisis, Colleen Dilenschneider, the Chief Market Engagement Officer for IMPACTS Research & Development, shared the results of one of the largest surveys of attitudes towards cultural organizations, the IMPACTS National Awareness, Attitude and Usage Study.

“Over the years, in the United States museums have remained highly trusted organizations. Since the pandemic has started, we have seen a significant bump in the credibility of cultural organizations alongside the sharp decline in trust of federal agencies,” explained Dilenschneider. She further concluded that memory institutions had to fill in the gaps by acting as credible sources of information.

“While memory institutions are trusted organizations, their work is mostly appreciated offline. The challenge today is to rethink their activities in the digital environment,” argued Jonathan Hernandez Perez, Library professor and Associate Researcher at the Library and Information Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. According to him, more cooperation is needed between memory institutions to implement a multilayered set of reforms.

In addition, he spoke about the need for building a public disinformation research agenda from the perspective of archives, libraries and museums. As examples, he highlighted the efforts by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) to develop infographics on “How to spot fake news: COVID-19 edition” and a series of webinars on health information overload, the relationship between fact-checkers and libraries, among other topics.

Anna Kozlowska, Assistant Professor and Liaison Librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, offered advice to academic libraries in particular on how they can help fight disinformation. Apart from providing access to reliable information about COVID-19 that can be useful for research purposes, she emphasized the need for institutional partnerships as well as balancing access to collection and services with care for the safety of patrons and library employees.

Finally, the webinar zoomed in on the Arab region. Ali Saif Al-Aufi, Associate Professor in the Department of Information Studies at the Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, said that libraries in the region were largely unprepared for the health disinformation crisis and it was largely the national government, which took on the responsibility. Al-Aufi advocated for more media and information literacy training for youth as well as for librarians. He also questioned the usefulness of the term “disinfodemic”, at least in the Arab context, arguing that it was used interchangeably with “infodemic” or even “disinformation”.

Organized by UNESCO’s Memory of the World (MoW) Programme and the Section for Media and Information Literacy and Media Development, the webinar took place within the framework of UNESCO’s Media and Information Literacy and Intercultural Dialogue University Network (MILID) Response to COVID-19 webinar series. It reinforced an earlier joint webinar on What can we learn from past pandemics? Taking a historical perspective to enhance MIL among youth.

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