Information in the digital age
Recent decades have been marked by rapid technical transformations that have completely upended the ways people interact, communicate and access information about the world. People now possess the entirety of human knowledge in the palm of their hand, and news and information can ricochet around the world in seconds.
Opportunities and dangers
There are vast new opportunities to educate, inform and organize. Particularly during the COVID-19 lockdowns, technology was key in enabling continued access to vital information about health, but also to education, work etc. Yet these dramatic shifts have also had negative consequences that we are only beginning to confront, including the much accelerated rate at which misinformation, disinformation, and even hate speech spread. Again, the COVID-19 pandemic brought this into sharp focus as health measures were widely debated and dis- and misinformation made their implementation more difficult.
What is disinformation?
While misinformation refers to the accidental spread of inaccurate information, disinformation is not only inaccurate, but intends to deceive and is spread in order to do serious harm.
Disinformation can be spread by state or non-state actors. It can affect a broad range of human rights, undermining responses to public policies or amplifying tensions in times of emergency or armed conflict.
There is no universally accepted definition of disinformation. No one definition may be sufficient on its own, given the multiple and different contexts in which concerns over disinformation may arise, including with regard to issues as diverse as electoral process, public health, armed conflicts, or climate change.
What to do about it?
A response rooted in human rights
The General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have both called for responses to the spread of disinformation to promote and protect and not to infringe on individuals’ freedom of expression and freedom to seek, receive and impart information, as established by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 19 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Freedom of expression also covers critical speech, including speech that questions societal norms, expressions that take the form of irony, satire, parody or humour and erroneous interpretation of facts or events. Such speech must not be unduly restricted under the guise of combating disinformation.
“Approaches that seek simple solutions to this complex problem are likely to censor legitimate speech that is protected under international human rights law. Such overbroad restrictions are likely to exacerbate societal ills and increase public distrust and disconnections, rather than contribute to the resolution of underlying problems.” (A/77/287)
Maximize access to information, promote digital literacy and work with companies
Rather than imposing restrictions, states are encouraged to promote and protect free and independent media and to maximize transparency and access to information, in order to build trust in public institutions, governance, and processes. They should also encourage public participation at all levels and enable meaningful dialogues and debates.
Some States have carried out digital and media literacy programmes to enable more resilient and meaningful participation online. Such initiatives serve to promote critical thinking skills that empower people to identify, dispel and debunk disinformation.
States should also invest in tools and mechanisms that support independent fact-checking with the participation of journalists and civil society.
In accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, States should encourage companies to respect human rights, including by requiring them to conduct human rights due diligence, increase transparency around their policies and practices relating to disinformation, engage with civil society, provide access to researchers and to grant users greater control of their online experiences.
Fight the worst forms of disinformation
Restrictions to freedom of expression are only permissible in exceptional cases. When restrictions are imposed, they must be provided by law, be necessary for the protection of the rights of individuals, or of national security, and be proportionate. Restrictions must not serve, in practice, to stifle freedom of expression.
States must hold accountable those who advocate for national, racial, or religious hatred. Article 20 (2) of the Covenant requires that propaganda for war or advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence be prohibited by law.