States’ response to combating disinformation has been “problematic, inadequate, and detrimental to human rights,” according to the findings of a report by United Nations Rapporteur Irene Khan presented to the UN General Assembly during the 47th Session of the UN Human Rights Council held this week.
Entitled ‘Disinformation and Freedom of Opinion and Expression’, it aims to highlight the threats posed by disinformation on human rights, democratic institutions and development processes. It also provides some 22 recommendations of how states and companies can protect themselves and citizens from the phenomenon.
Khan, whose speciality is the protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, described disinformation as “a complex multifaceted phenomenon with serious consequences”.
“It destroys people’s trust in democratic institutions. It thrives where public information regimes are weak and independent investigative journalism is constrained. It disempowers individuals, robbing them of their autonomy to search, receive and share information and form opinions,” she added.
Khan stressed that the Member States, including Malta, have not properly addressed the situation, and in many cases, the States are using disinformation against their own people.
She called for States to “recalibrate their responses to disinformation” by “enhancing the role of free, independent, and diverse media.” This should be done through a multidimensional and multi-stakeholder approach, including investment in digital literacy, empowering the public and rebuilding public trust.
Speaking generally, Khan said that States are engaging in their own disinformation either from state institutions or proxies that target domestic audiences.
This is primarily done for political or strategic aims, and the use of technology has exacerbated it. This combined with the power, resources, and reach of the state results in “devastating” consequences for human rights.
She said that when States “systematically and simultaneously suppress” other sources such as independent media, while pushing false narratives, they deny individuals the right to seek information.
Over the last few years, several countries have been subjected to Stade-led disinformation campaigns, particularly during elections and other political processes. They are also used to control public discourse and curb debate or criticism over the government’s actions, the report found.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were instances whereby States falsified infection and death rates or denied the spread of the disease. This, Khan said, has been “detrimental to efforts to control the pandemic”, and has endangered lives.
States also took steps to suppress other sources of legitimate information through censorship, disrupting internet connections, creating new legislation, or sponsoring other forms of disinformation.
For example, in The Philippines, State agents have been found branding activists and journalists as leftists, communists, terrorists, or spies. The report said this increased the risk of them being arrested, attacked, or killed.
In terms of recommendations, at State level Khan said laws and policies must be made following proper consultation with the public, while ensuring those making the laws have adequate knowledge on the topic. In the absence of this, many have resorted to disproportionate measures which “chill online speech and shrink civic space”.
Media information and digital literacy are key tools in the fight against disinformation. Khan wrote that it “empowers people and builds their resilience against disinformation and misinformation”. She called for it to become a part of the national curriculum in Member States’ schools.
States must also focus on restoring public trust in the integrity of information. As the primary duty bearers concerning human rights, they must not make, sponsor, encourage, or disseminate false statements.
It’s also necessary for them to fulfil their duty by being transparent and proactively disclosing official data and by reaffirming their commitment to journalists.
This includes ”ensuring the safety of journalists online and offline and ending impunity for threats, intimidation, harassment, attacks and killings of journalists, including women journalists, bloggers, cartoonists and human rights defenders.”
This, the report said, is key to restoring confidence in the public sphere as a safe place for discussions.
Khan concluded by saying that the UN has a key role in ensuring that all measures to combat disinformation are in line with international human rights law, particularly the rights of freedom of expression and opinion.
The Shift continues to monitor and report on disinformation tactics used by the government and spread through online trolls through the series Disinformation Watch.