.
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urrent international responses by states and companies to combat disinformation are “problematic, inadequate, and detrimental to human rights,” concluded Special Rapporteur Irene Khan in a new report by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The arrival of this report coincides with a period of heightened disinformation, as rampant false claims about COVID-19 have contributed to the pandemic’s grave effects on global public health.

“Although empirical research suggests that only a small proportion of people are exposed to disinformation, the impacts on institutions, communities, and individuals are real, broad, and legitimate,” stated Khan in the report. The UNHRC identified several of these consequences in addition to those seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, including the generation of violent ethnic and religious tensions in Ethiopia and Myanmar, the discrediting of climate scientists around the world, and the erosion of trust in the U.S. electoral system after unfounded claims of voter fraud.

In response to disinformation, both states and companies have implemented measures to contain false or misleading narratives. The UNHRC surveyed these recent efforts, condemning those which violated international human rights standards.

Specifically, the report addressed how some state or corporate actors have violated the rights to freedom of opinion and freedom of expression in order to combat disinformation. According to the UNHRC, the freedom to hold an opinion is absolute and does not permit any exceptions. Meanwhile, it acknowledged that the freedom of expression may be limited by states, but only in narrow circumstances to protect national security, public order, or public health.

Trends in State Responses

First––and flagged as the most extreme reaction to disinformation––is state-led disinformation. According to the UNHRC, this situation occurs when “governments systematically and simultaneously suppress other sources while promoting their own false narratives.” Pursuing state-led disinformation clearly violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), according to the UNHRC, because it denies individuals the right to seek and receive information.

As an example, the report referenced an instance of state-led disinformation that occurred in Myanmar, when military officials spread doctored and mislabeled photographs on Facebook in 2018 to change the narrative of the Rohingya crisis, a state-sanctioned effort that resulted in the displacement of Myanmar’s ethnic Muslim minority group.

The report also condemned measures by states to shut down internet connections––especially before and during elections––to limit disinformation. This response has occurred in Belarus, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and Myanmar, claimed the UNHRC. But how do these shutdowns violate human rights? When select citizens are deprived of online information, they are disproportionately robbed of vital factual sources, explained the report.

The third response condemned by the UNHRC is states’ use of criminal laws to address disinformation. “They often do not define with sufficient precision what constitutes false information or what harm they seek to prevent,” wrote Khan. ‘Nor do they require the establishment of a concrete and strong nexus between the act committed and the harm caused.”

Lastly, the UNHRC criticized states whose authorities have excessive discretionary power over social media. The report highlighted that governments in Kenya, Pakistan, and Russia have removed online expression and imposed fines on users without due process or court order.

Trends in Company Responses

In addition to state efforts, the UNHRC recognized that media companies hold critical positions as intermediaries of information. Initially, the UNHRC acknowledged that some recent measures by companies to fight disinformation have been positive and comply with human rights standards, including the use of labels, warnings, and fact-checking features.

However, it is the inconsistency of companies in applying these mechanisms that concerns the UN. By disproportionately applying content-sharing policies to some users while excluding others, a company can create adverse impacts on human rights for certain groups of people, explained the report.

There are various reasons why a company may fail to consistently protect its users’ freedom of expression and opinion. For instance, the UNHRC identified that a platform’s policies are usually incoherent and vague, and curation algorithms can unknowingly promote false information to some users over others. Moreover, the report specified that these algorithms tend to follow an advertisement-driven model, rewarding addicting content like extreme posts and conspiracy theories. 

Additionally, there are external political pressures that could influence how a platform’s executives treat specific information. For this factor, the report described a situation in which Facebook inconsistently applied its rules to censor content in two different countries. In February of 2021, Facebook banned accounts linked to leaders from the military coup d’état in Myanmar. However, it had refused to follow a similar course of action a year prior in Vietnam, when Facebook reportedly increased its compliance with the Vietnamese government’s request to censor anti-state content.

The UNHRC also criticized media companies for withholding their platform’s data from the public, which blocks scholars from understanding intricacies within trends in disinformation. “Most of the largest social media companies produce transparency reports twice a year, but they do not share more precise and meaningful information about action taken to address disinformation or misinformation,” wrote the UNHRC.

Among social media companies, the report emphasized Facebook’s transparency reports as particularly insufficient. Although the platform provides information about the removal of fake accounts, it does not reference the content that the removed accounts promoted or any information relating to user engagement, including shares, views, reach, and the number of complaints or requests for removal.

Recommendations

Although the UNHRC report prioritized the identification of human rights violations in state and company responses to disinformation, it also offered guidelines for future responses. However, it noted that these responses are not comprehensive for all contexts.

Given this broad framing, the UNHRC proposed three overarching goals for its recommendations: ensure public trust in institutions, increase levels of media literacy, and secure an independent and diverse media environment.

In pursuit of these goals, the UNHRC claimed, “The need for multi-stakeholder dialogue and partnerships cannot be overstated.” It recommended that all measures to combat disinformation should occur through a cooperative interaction between states, companies, international organizations, civil society, and the media.

States––as the primary duty-bearers for human rights––must hold companies and other partners to human rights standards and require complete transparency for all decisions to regulate disinformation, recommended the UNHRC. Additionally, states were recommended to implement national curricula for media literacy.

Companies, according to the UNHRC, have the duty to comply with states but should take active measures to assess the risk that their platforms hold to spread disinformation. For example, they should conduct impact assessments that could identify potential adverse effects stemming from built-in features on the platform, such as content-curation algorithms. These companies should also review their business models to ensure that the platform’s data collection and data processing are compliant with human rights standards, recommended the UNHRC. 

Finally, the UNHRC addressed its own role. It committed itself to the continued monitoring of human rights standards around the globe, and it shared its future intent to consider the implementation of additional initiatives to protect human rights in the digital space.

About
Thomas Plant
:
Thomas Plant is a student at the College of William & Mary pursuing a BA in International Relations and Hispanic Studies. He is a founding co-director for DisinfoLab, an undergraduate research lab at W&M.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Current Disinformation Responses Detrimental to Human Rights

Image via AdobeStock.

August 24, 2021

A new report by the UNHRC finds current international responses to combat disinformation are problematic and inadequate with catastrophic implications for human rights globally.

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urrent international responses by states and companies to combat disinformation are “problematic, inadequate, and detrimental to human rights,” concluded Special Rapporteur Irene Khan in a new report by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The arrival of this report coincides with a period of heightened disinformation, as rampant false claims about COVID-19 have contributed to the pandemic’s grave effects on global public health.

“Although empirical research suggests that only a small proportion of people are exposed to disinformation, the impacts on institutions, communities, and individuals are real, broad, and legitimate,” stated Khan in the report. The UNHRC identified several of these consequences in addition to those seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, including the generation of violent ethnic and religious tensions in Ethiopia and Myanmar, the discrediting of climate scientists around the world, and the erosion of trust in the U.S. electoral system after unfounded claims of voter fraud.

In response to disinformation, both states and companies have implemented measures to contain false or misleading narratives. The UNHRC surveyed these recent efforts, condemning those which violated international human rights standards.

Specifically, the report addressed how some state or corporate actors have violated the rights to freedom of opinion and freedom of expression in order to combat disinformation. According to the UNHRC, the freedom to hold an opinion is absolute and does not permit any exceptions. Meanwhile, it acknowledged that the freedom of expression may be limited by states, but only in narrow circumstances to protect national security, public order, or public health.

Trends in State Responses

First––and flagged as the most extreme reaction to disinformation––is state-led disinformation. According to the UNHRC, this situation occurs when “governments systematically and simultaneously suppress other sources while promoting their own false narratives.” Pursuing state-led disinformation clearly violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), according to the UNHRC, because it denies individuals the right to seek and receive information.

As an example, the report referenced an instance of state-led disinformation that occurred in Myanmar, when military officials spread doctored and mislabeled photographs on Facebook in 2018 to change the narrative of the Rohingya crisis, a state-sanctioned effort that resulted in the displacement of Myanmar’s ethnic Muslim minority group.

The report also condemned measures by states to shut down internet connections––especially before and during elections––to limit disinformation. This response has occurred in Belarus, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and Myanmar, claimed the UNHRC. But how do these shutdowns violate human rights? When select citizens are deprived of online information, they are disproportionately robbed of vital factual sources, explained the report.

The third response condemned by the UNHRC is states’ use of criminal laws to address disinformation. “They often do not define with sufficient precision what constitutes false information or what harm they seek to prevent,” wrote Khan. ‘Nor do they require the establishment of a concrete and strong nexus between the act committed and the harm caused.”

Lastly, the UNHRC criticized states whose authorities have excessive discretionary power over social media. The report highlighted that governments in Kenya, Pakistan, and Russia have removed online expression and imposed fines on users without due process or court order.

Trends in Company Responses

In addition to state efforts, the UNHRC recognized that media companies hold critical positions as intermediaries of information. Initially, the UNHRC acknowledged that some recent measures by companies to fight disinformation have been positive and comply with human rights standards, including the use of labels, warnings, and fact-checking features.

However, it is the inconsistency of companies in applying these mechanisms that concerns the UN. By disproportionately applying content-sharing policies to some users while excluding others, a company can create adverse impacts on human rights for certain groups of people, explained the report.

There are various reasons why a company may fail to consistently protect its users’ freedom of expression and opinion. For instance, the UNHRC identified that a platform’s policies are usually incoherent and vague, and curation algorithms can unknowingly promote false information to some users over others. Moreover, the report specified that these algorithms tend to follow an advertisement-driven model, rewarding addicting content like extreme posts and conspiracy theories. 

Additionally, there are external political pressures that could influence how a platform’s executives treat specific information. For this factor, the report described a situation in which Facebook inconsistently applied its rules to censor content in two different countries. In February of 2021, Facebook banned accounts linked to leaders from the military coup d’état in Myanmar. However, it had refused to follow a similar course of action a year prior in Vietnam, when Facebook reportedly increased its compliance with the Vietnamese government’s request to censor anti-state content.

The UNHRC also criticized media companies for withholding their platform’s data from the public, which blocks scholars from understanding intricacies within trends in disinformation. “Most of the largest social media companies produce transparency reports twice a year, but they do not share more precise and meaningful information about action taken to address disinformation or misinformation,” wrote the UNHRC.

Among social media companies, the report emphasized Facebook’s transparency reports as particularly insufficient. Although the platform provides information about the removal of fake accounts, it does not reference the content that the removed accounts promoted or any information relating to user engagement, including shares, views, reach, and the number of complaints or requests for removal.

Recommendations

Although the UNHRC report prioritized the identification of human rights violations in state and company responses to disinformation, it also offered guidelines for future responses. However, it noted that these responses are not comprehensive for all contexts.

Given this broad framing, the UNHRC proposed three overarching goals for its recommendations: ensure public trust in institutions, increase levels of media literacy, and secure an independent and diverse media environment.

In pursuit of these goals, the UNHRC claimed, “The need for multi-stakeholder dialogue and partnerships cannot be overstated.” It recommended that all measures to combat disinformation should occur through a cooperative interaction between states, companies, international organizations, civil society, and the media.

States––as the primary duty-bearers for human rights––must hold companies and other partners to human rights standards and require complete transparency for all decisions to regulate disinformation, recommended the UNHRC. Additionally, states were recommended to implement national curricula for media literacy.

Companies, according to the UNHRC, have the duty to comply with states but should take active measures to assess the risk that their platforms hold to spread disinformation. For example, they should conduct impact assessments that could identify potential adverse effects stemming from built-in features on the platform, such as content-curation algorithms. These companies should also review their business models to ensure that the platform’s data collection and data processing are compliant with human rights standards, recommended the UNHRC. 

Finally, the UNHRC addressed its own role. It committed itself to the continued monitoring of human rights standards around the globe, and it shared its future intent to consider the implementation of additional initiatives to protect human rights in the digital space.

About
Thomas Plant
:
Thomas Plant is a student at the College of William & Mary pursuing a BA in International Relations and Hispanic Studies. He is a founding co-director for DisinfoLab, an undergraduate research lab at W&M.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.