Free media the answer to disinformation
The detention of cartoonists, bloggers and journalists under the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh has led to allegations of torture and death in custody, said a top diplomat at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed alarm at the sharp rise in the use of "false news" laws to clamp down on criticism of governments in the wake of the pandemic in many countries in Asia, said Irene Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
She made the comments while placing her report at the 47th session of the UNHRC in Geneva from June 21 to July 13.
Responses by states and companies to disinformation have been problematic, inadequate and detrimental to human rights, Khan said, according to a statement of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
She called on states to uphold the right to freedom of expression as the primary means by which to fight disinformation.
"Although there is no universally accepted definition of disinformation, drawing broadly from international practice I have interpreted the concept to mean false or misleading information disseminated intentionally to cause serious social harm, and misinformation to mean the dissemination of false information unknowingly."
While disinformation is not a new phenomenon, what is new is that digital technology has enabled pathways for false or manipulated information to be created, disseminated and amplified at scale by various actors for political, ideological or commercial motives.
"Diverse and reliable information, digital literacy, smart social media regulation and free, independent and diverse media are the obvious antidote to disinformation," the Bangladeshi lawyer told the UNHRC.
Disinformation, interacting with political social and economic grievances in the real world, is undermining freedom of expression, polarising public debates, fuelling public distrust and endangering human rights, democratic institutions, public health and sustainable development, she said.
"The impact on individuals, communities and institutions is real and deeply disturbing. The imperative and urgency to address the problem is clear," she said, adding that the responses of the states are problematic.
Some states have resorted to disproportionate measures such as internet shutdowns and vague and overly broad laws to criminalise, block, censor and chill online speech and shrink civic space, and compel social media platforms to remove lawful content without judicial process.
"Some governments have used these laws against journalists, political opponents and human rights defenders."
Not only are such measures incompatible with international human rights law, but they also do little to combat disinformation.
On the contrary, by discouraging the flow of diverse sources of information, they hamper fact-finding, feed rumours, foster fear and undermine trust in public institutions. By compelling social media platforms to police speech, they create a risk that companies will zealously over-remove material and undermine free speech.
Algorithms, targeted advertising and data harvesting practices of the largest social media companies are largely credited with driving users towards "extremist" content and conspiracy theories, undermining the right of individuals to form an opinion and to freely develop beliefs and ideas.
"Company responses to disinformation have been largely reactive, insufficient and opaque," she said, while calling upon the social media companies to review their business models and ensure that their business operations, data collection and data processing practices are compliant with international human rights standards.
She warned that "old ingrained sexist attitudes with the anonymity and reach of social media" were being used to launch gendered disinformation campaigns against women journalists, politicians and human rights defenders to push them out of public life.
She called on states and companies to ensure the safety of women online and offline.
Khan went on to call for proactive engagement of states, companies, international organisations, civil society and the media.
Tackling disinformation requires multidimensional multi-stakeholder responses that are well-grounded in the full range of human rights, she added.