Press Releases

Wexton, Hirono Introduce Legislation to Direct Study on Spread of COVID-19 Misinformation and Disinformation

Washington, September 24, 2020

Washington, DC -- Today, Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) and Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) introduced the COVID-19 Disinformation Research and Reporting Act. The new legislation 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 bill is co-sponsored by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representatives Don Beyer (D-VA), Sean Casten (D-IL), Bill Foster (D-IL), and Jamie Raskin (D-MD).

"Misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 is rampant and undermines the tireless work being done by our public health officials, doctors, and scientists to keep our communities safe and healthy,” said Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton. “False information, spread willfully or not, can be deadly in a public health crisis like this. With this legislation, Senator Hirono and I are tasking the brightest scientific minds to examine this threat and provide lawmakers with the objective analysis we need to confront it."

"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 Mazie K. Hirono.

The study would examine the roles disinformation and misinformation have played in the public response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the sources of COVID-19 disinformation and misinformation, including the mechanisms by which they influence public debate. It also would look into possible financial incentives from its spread, the role of social media in promoting false information, and strategies to limit its negative impacts. The bill authorizes $1 million to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to partner with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (National Academies) to conduct the study. 

Disinformation and misinformation can be particularly dangerous during public health emergencies like COVID-19. This kind of false information can erode trust in science, government officials, and medical and public health experts. Disinformation and misinformation can also make it harder to get accurate and important materials to vulnerable communities, particularly once a vaccine becomes available. The internet and social media have made it easier to spread fake medical information such as unproven treatments for COVID-19.

"I applaud the efforts of Representative Wexton and Senator Hirono in advancing this valuable legislation. We have reached a point at which the spread of COVID-19 disinformation and its threat to democracy is as dangerous as the virus itself. More research is needed to understand its origins, how it perpetuates racism and health inequities among communities of color, and its impacts on local, state, and federal decision making,” said Genna Reed, Lead Science and Policy Analyst, Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists. “It is imperative that we use all the tools possible to understand and stop disinformation so that we can make decisions about our health and safety using clear and accurate information. The steps we take now can better prepare our health agencies to counter disinformation before it spreads, for COVID-19 and future national emergencies." 

On Tuesday, September 29, at 10 a.m., Congresswoman Wexton and Senator Hirono will host a virtual roundtable on the dangers of COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation and discuss their legislation. The lawmakers will be joined by Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, and Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow at the Wilson Center. The event will be livestreamed on Congresswoman Wexton’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

Congresswoman Wexton successfully secured a provision in the bipartisan Heroes Act to authorize a study on COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation. Wexton is the founder of the Congressional Task Force on Digital Citizenship which aims to better equip Americans with tools and resources to use technology and responsibly engage online.

The COVID-19 Disinformation Research and Reporting Act of 2020 is endorsed by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The full text of the bill can be found here.

###