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APC welcomes the call of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression to reflect on the impacts of disinformation on the issues pertaining to her mandate and appreciates the opportunity to provide input for the annual thematic report to be presented to the Human Rights Council at its 47th session in June 2021.
The spreading of so-called “fake news” has reached new dimensions – in terms of reach, speed and volume – with the expansion in the use of ICTs and in particular with the growing access to the internet. Disinformation, however, is not a new phenomenon; propaganda and conspiracy theories have marked public debate for centuries.
To define disinformation as a modern phenomenon catapulted by social media usage is key to assessing its current impact and understanding its current framing. Filter bubbles, echo chambers, micro-targeted advertising, algorithms governance and transparency are all elements particular to the 21st century disinformation context. Another very particular characteristic of disinformation in the digital age is the diversification of actors who produce/disseminate it. In the previous era, disinformation was a prerogative mostly of the ones who owned or controlled the media. The “oligopoly” of disinformation is broken in the digital era and the implications are significant.
The discussion of the root causes and possible solutions to the disinformation problem, however, cannot be addressed without a broader look into our informational ecosystems – online and offline. When we say that solutions to address disinformation should look at our broader informational ecosystems, we refer to the fact that the unavailability of trustworthy information on issues of public interest is one of the factors behind the growing consumption of disinformation. The correlations between disinformation and access to public information, as well as access to investigative and independent journalism and media diversity and plurality, are particularly relevant to the issues that pertain to this Special Rapporteur’s mandate.
Work carried out by civil society in different regions adds to a growing body of evidence that seems to point out that when no robust public information regimes are in place and independent media (including community and public outlets) are unable to provide diverse, quality and independent coverage, disinformation trends find especially fertile ground to spread and destabilise. Overall respect for people’s freedom of assembly and association and freedom of expression, including that of activists, community leaders and human rights defenders, is also an important piece of the information ecosystem puzzle.
Understanding why people consume disinformation, and why disinformation seems to circulate more broadly and easily than true facts, helps us identify the mechanisms created to exploit it and can tell us a lot about how to prevent its harmful effects. Any measures looking forward should consider the empowerment and increased agency of users, not only as critical audiences, but as rights holders.
Disinformation is a global problem that will not be addressed properly if a fragmented approach is adopted. It is also a multistakeholder challenge that requires dialogue between different sectors – dialogue that needs to be built on transparency and participation in decision making.
APC considers it particularly concerning that such a complex and multifaceted problem has been addressed within the context of COVID-19 without the necessary procedural safeguards to ensure the needed transparency and participation. Technology companies have reacted to the growing circulation of health-related disinformation with a series of new policies, and governments across the world have proposed dedicated legislation. Often the necessary information and data needed to ground such actions is not disclosed, and limited or no multistakeholder consultation takes place, mainly under the justification of a state of emergency, sidelining human rights concerns. These concerns are detailed in our submission.