Underwood says stopping COVID-19 disinformation is a matter of 'life and death'

  • Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (IL-14) asks a question during a roundtable discussion in March.

      Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (IL-14) asks a question during a roundtable discussion in March. Rick West | Staff Photographer

Updated 5/11/2020 5:16 PM

With a deluge of disinformation about COVID-19 cascading through social media channels, two experts in such practices have urged Congress to pass legislation that would create universal standards to guide companies like Facebook and YouTube.

In response, Democratic congresswoman Lauren Underwood of Naperville promised to draft legislation detailing when and how quickly social media companies should remove false information detrimental to public health.


"The stakes are life and death," Underwood said. "The federal government has to ensure Americans are able to find and identify how to keep their families safe during this crisis."

Underwood is running for reelection against Sugar Grove Republican Jim Oberweis in this fall's general election.

Suburban residents have expressed a lack of confidence in the true statistics about the prevalence and impact of the COVID-19 virus in social media posts and at two recent video chats with Kane County leaders.

Underwood's conversation occurred during a public discussion on "Flattening the Misinformation Curve" she hosted Monday in her capacity as vice chairwoman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, and Renee DiResta, a research manager for the Stanford Internet Observatory, told Underwood there are no easy answers to stopping the flow of misinformation.

Freedom of speech must be a primary consideration in any regulations Congress adopts, they said.

"If you take (false information) down after it's gone viral, unfortunately, you have a second wave of shares and controversy related to the conspiracy of censorship surrounding the takedown," DiResta said. "It gets framed as censoring a political point of view."

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DiResta said part of the answer is making sure the true and correct information is readily available and vigorously pushed out to the public so facts answer people's questions about the virus before disinformation can take root.

But those with the correct information should not engage with people spreading false facts in a way that shames them or makes them defensive. That only makes them hold tighter to the disinformation, Jankowicz said.

"I would encourage everyone to approach people through a direct message or approach them more privately," she said. "Say, 'I know you really care about this issue, here's some info you might want to know.' Put that human element back into our online conversations. We're not going to fact-check our way out of the crisis of truth and trust we face. We have to bring humanity back into the equation."

Underwood's staff said Monday the bill language is still being refined before the legislation is formally introduced. Underwood urged local residents to go to CDC.gov to get answers to their COVID-19 questions.

The sprawling 14th District includes parts of Will, Kane, DuPage, McHerny and Lake counties.

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