Due to online media, there has been substantial growth in access to diverse information instead of a few mainstream sources. Known as fragmentation, this results in the erosion of audience from mainstream media platforms, leading to more choices and consumption of diverse, more specific media outlets by the general public. Fragmentation is a causal factor of the media “echo chamber,” a phenomenon in which one’s digital environment echoes personal biases and beliefs, reinforcing views without exposure to conflicting outlooks. These concepts play leading roles in facilitating large-scale misinformation, obstructing the possibility of truly objective media, as there is no balance between conflicting perspectives in sources ("Our Common").
Misinformation has become a major global issue; its urgency is enhanced due to the recent disinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and international conflict. In Latin America, a reported problem arose from a WhatsApp message collecting user’s personal data, asking for peoples’ home addresses by stating, “Stay home, the UN will bring you food.” Additionally, recommendations of untested remedies and anti-vaxxer ideas were commonplace with little to no scientific basis. In Ukraine, a strategic misinformation campaign took place, which attempted to cause distrust of the audience on humanitarian aid (?) amidst the war. These false narratives have severe implications in sensitive times, leading to citizens having unrealistic expectations of the United Nations (UN), health risks, and skepticism over the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) humanitarians ("UN's Rights").
Forbes image (2020) criticising narrative of dishonest doctors spreading false COVID-19 information.
Almost all of the world´s population live in nations under the right to information-laws, but these seem to be inappropriately implemented. Although the UN has created reputable institutions constantly disseminating fact-based information, such as World Health Organization (WHO) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global effort is needed to promote the integrity of information sponsored by the UN. These measures must still uphold freedom of speech, the right to privacy, the right to be forgotten and impunity for journalists from attacks and harassment. Furthermore, the importance of anonymity in disclosing private information and the correlation between disinformation and data profiling used for advertising through micro-targeting must be taken into consideration ("Our Common").
In a 2022 UN Human Rights Council meeting, a new resolution was adopted regarding the role of Member States in countering disinformation to protect human rights. This resolution defined disinformation as “manipulated information intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either to cause harm or for personal, political or financial gain,” leading it to “violate and abuse human rights, including privacy and the freedom of individuals to seek, receive and impart information.” especially in times of crisis (Human Rights). The session dedicated to this resolution included an official report by UN Special Rapporteur Irene Khan, who discussed the implications of media freedom and journalist safety on democracy and human rights. She argued, “populist leaders have actively sought to demonize and discredit independent journalists and many governments have introduced restrictions on freedom of expression contravening international law,” suggesting the importance of a global framework effectuated by States, organizations, and media platforms ("Ensuring Media").
The UN expert emphasized the continuous attacks on journalists, in combination with judicial harassment and criminalization of journalism in some States. This radical censorship through persecution, in some cases including threats to the lives of journalists, directly violates their human rights, using authority to suppress the press. Countries have set vague “fake news” legislations, which can be manipulated to justify such breaches of basic human rights and freedoms. Digital platforms have developed tendencies to gatekeep information through filtering with little transparency with their audience, limiting public access to information. These issues require States and international institutions to acknowledge these threats and establish extensive measures of international impunity for journalists, especially as the problem is rooted in national compliance rather than international policy ("Ensuring Media").
The UN Human Rights Council resolution addressed all the issues presented by the report, providing solutions. It urged the fact-checking of misinformation and improvement of government-granted access to “reliable information to counter disinformation, including by increasing their own transparency” ("UN: Human") in Member States, encouraging them to prioritize the security of journalists and other media workers. In relation to social media platforms, the resolution enforced clear articulation and greater transparency of disinformation policies, addressing misinformation and considering the impact of algorithms in the “echo-chamber” without directly interfering with their audiences’ access to information.
The resolution also focuses on article 19 and article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) regarding freedom of information and opinion without interference. It condemned the incorporation of censorship in media misinformation regulations, including broad laws that criminalize disinformation. This includes internet shutdowns, such as blocking platforms or interrupting mobile services, and vague legislations on false news, which often correlates with abuse of authority governments.
Several previous measures have already been taken to establish international guidelines on misinformation monitoring. One is the European Democracy Action Plan, which indicates mandatory responsibilities and accountability of online platforms. The 2018 Code of Practice instituted self-regulated standards founded on the EU Commissions´ objectives, widely accepted by global industries and followed by the voluntary Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation. Lastly, a coalition of expert researchers and factcheckers accessing social media, journalism-based media, online disinformation, and media literacy formed the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO). Although these policies have been effective, many legislations have risks that exceed the benefits ("Tackling Online"). For example, a draft in Brazil required a valid ID and a cell phone number for all social media, infringing on the right to privacy and freedom of speech, and ridding users of their platforms if any requirements are not met ("The UN Report").
Cartoon by Judy Q.
Essentially, false and misleading content or narratives can threaten the principles of democracy, polarize debates and issues, and risk global security, health, and the environment. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, and the severe repercussions of non-stringent regulations, the UN and experts have stressed the importance of a human rights foundation in any policy. Governments worldwide have taken action in various forms, such as law, media literacy, bills, internet shutdowns, law enforcement, failed legislations, task forces, reporting, investigations, court rulings, and even threats (Funke and Flamini). It is the job of Member States to reach an agreement and media platforms to create uniform policies protecting all countries, prioritizing the data ecosystem’s accountability and transparency.
"Ensuring Media Freedom and Safety of Journalists Requires Urgent Concrete Action Backed by Political Will: UN Expert." United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, OHCHR, 24 June 2022, www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/06/ensuring-media-freedom-and-safety-journalists-requires-urgent-concrete.
Funke, Daniel, and Daniela Flamini. "A Guide to Anti-misinformation Actions around the World." Edited by Barbara Allen and Alexios Mantzarlis. Poynter, www.poynter.org/ifcn/anti-misinformation-actions/. Accessed 6 Oct. 2022.
"Our Common Agenda: Report of the Secretary-General." UNRIC Library Backgrounder: Combat Misinformation – Selected Online Resources on Misinformation, Disinformation and Hate Speech, United Nations, 5 Aug. 2021, unric.org/en/unric-library-backgrounder-combat-misinformation. Accessed 7 Oct. 2022.
Suciu, Peter. "During COVID-19 Pandemic It Isn't Just Fake News but Seriously Bad Misinformation That Is Spreading on Social Media." Forbes, 8 Apr. 2020. Forbes, www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2020/04/08/during-covid-19-pandemic-it-isnt-just-fake-news-but-seriously-bad-misinformation-that-is-spreading-on-social-media/?sh=7ca920387e55. Accessed 7 Nov. 2022.
"Tackling Online Disinformation." European Commission, EU, 29 June 2022, digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/policies/online-disinformation. Accessed 7 Oct. 2022.
"UN: Human Rights Council Adopts Resolution on Disinformation." Article 19, 5 Apr. 2022, www.article19.org/resources/un-human-rights-council-adopts-resolution-on-disinformation/. Accessed 7 Oct. 2022.
"The UN Report on Disinformation: A Role for Privacy." Privacy International, 17 May 2021, privacyinternational.org/news-analysis/4515/un-report-disinformation-role-privacy. Accessed 8 Oct. 2022.
"UN's Rights Council Adopts 'Fake News' Resolution, States Urged to Tackle Hate Speech." UN News, United Nations, 1 Apr. 2022, news.un.org/en/story/2022/04/1115412. Accessed 7 Oct. 2022.