WESTBURY, New York — The Rockefeller Foundation’s history of philanthropic service in health, innovation and energy is long, but the Foundation now sets its sights on a more ambitious target: misinformation. The Borgen Project spoke with Eileen O’Connor, The Rockefeller Foundation’s senior vice president of communications, policy and advocacy to learn more about The Rockefeller Foundation’s current philanthropy projects.
The Severity of Misinformation
The concept of misinformation involves the action of spreading false information regardless of intention. The proliferation of misinformation, especially in recent times, has led to dangerous consequences. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the spread of misinformation has led to vaccine hesitancy around the world, presenting a barrier to institutions that seek to inoculate their populations in vaccine rollouts. In addition, misinformation has caused citizens to disregard “public health measures” such as social distancing and wearing protective face masks.
Fighting misinformation can help nations garner support for the adherence to proper health protocols necessary to safeguard public health and vaccinate a country. In addition, fighting misinformation can also help stem some of the many conspiracy theories floating on the internet that can radicalize individuals into believing less than accurate information. In countries like India, Brazil and the United Kingdom, conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccine have proliferated in the past year along with misinformation regarding homemade COVID-19 cures.
The Rockefeller Foundation
The Rockefeller Foundation is a private non-governmental organization established in New York in 1913. Since its inception, the Foundation has focused on philanthropic advocacy “to promote the well-being of humanity” by funding research and development programs in the fields of food, energy and health. Now, The Rockefeller Foundation aims to curb the spread of misinformation around the world and quantify its effects.
In July 2021, The Rockefeller Foundation announced that it would allocate $13.5 million in funding to strengthen the COVID-19 response “in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the U.S.” Using these funds, this project also aims to curb health misinformation and other disinformation to ensure the global community is on the same page while fighting the pandemic.
As of September 6, 2021, India, “the world’s largest democracy,” has roughly 11% of its population fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus with approximately 32 million people infected with the virus. Since the start of India’s vaccine rollout in January 2021, roughly “17% of eligible adults have been fully vaccinated” while many others are looking toward fake home cures and dangerous alternative treatments fueled by conspiracy and falsehoods.
While widespread panic assuredly accounts for some of the negative information on the internet, new reporting suggests that many new conspiracy theories are political in nature. In Brazil, much of the political propaganda circulating uses skepticism about COVID-19 deaths and case numbers to sow doubt. Through WhatsApp and other social media platforms, misinformation about treatment and therapeutics soon followed.
An Interview with Eileen O’Connor
In an interview with The Borgen Project, O’Connor explains that the “confusion and conspiracy” she witnessed covering the Cold War is what motivated her to pursue her studies at Yale. She wanted to explore how education and critical thinking play a role in combating misinformation.
O’Connor joined The Rockefeller Foundation after an accomplished career as a journalist, lawyer and diplomat. Before joining The Rockefeller Foundation, O’Connor was a war reporter focused on social justice during the Cold War Era. She then joined the Center for Justice and Accountability as chairman of the board, where she offered pro bono legal assistance for asylum seekers and sued human rights abusers around the world.
After becoming a diplomat in Afghanistan under Ambassador Holbrooke during the Obama administration, O’Connor joined Yale University as vice president for communications to understand how education enables critical thinking. Her work in Afghanistan inspired her to learn more about how education can be a tool for progress before she joined The Rockefeller Foundation.
“As a journalist, I’ve covered a lot of issues and used facts and data all the time,” says O’Connor. “And from my experience as a lawyer, you really learn how to advocate for clients and how to compose facts and data to advocate for a position.”
The Cost of Misinformation
The Rockefeller Foundation’s new research project aims to measure “the cost of misinformation in terms of disease and death.” The essential question is “how many deaths did misinformation actually contribute to in this pandemic?” By quantifying the costs of misinformation, O’Connor hopes other organizations can use the information to find new solutions or better advocate against misinformation. This data will also “raise awareness that misinformation is literally killing us.”
Apart from deaths, The Rockefeller Foundation also seeks to measure not only “the cost in terms of just the burden of disease on people but also the burden of disease” on healthcare systems and economies across the world. In this way, the Foundation may be able to show that misinformation, in fact, exacerbates global poverty.
Technology is another tool the Foundation would like to employ to combat misinformation, which is ironic since misinformation is largely “facilitated by technology.” Working with universities and other educational institutions, O’Connor says the Foundation is interested in one day producing a policy or technology-driven solution to filter out misinformation.
O’Connor says that fighting issues like misinformation is important for furthering the goal of equity around the world and ensuring that the global community recovers from the pandemic. In addition, creating economic equality and opportunities should be the priorities of the world’s institutions as the world recovers from a pandemic, addresses historic inequality and counters rampant misinformation.
– Andre Silva