GENEVA (1 July 2021) – Responses by States and companies to disinformation have been problematic, inadequate and detrimental to human rights, a UN expert warned today, calling on States to uphold the right to freedom of expression as the primary means by which to fight disinformation.
“Diverse and reliable information, digital literacy, smart social media regulation and free, independent and diverse media are the obvious antidote to disinformation,” Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, told the Human Rights Council.
“Disinformation - responses to it - are undermining freedom of expression, polarizing public debates, fueling public distrust and endangering human rights, democratic institutions, public health and sustainable development,” said Khan.
“States have resorted to disproportionate measures such as Internet shutdowns and vague and overly broad laws to criminalize, block, censor and chill online speech and shrink civic space, and to compel social media platforms to remove lawful content without judicial process.”
In her report, the Special Rapporteur warned that these measures are incompatible with international law and are being used against journalists, political opponents and human rights defenders with impunity.
She said algorithms, targeted advertising and the 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,” said Khan.
“Social media companies should review their business models and ensure that their business operations, data collection and data processing practices are compliant with international human rights standards,” said the Special Rapporteur.
Khan also expressed concerns about inconsistent content moderation, opaque policies and processes and inadequate transparency and redress mechanisms of social media platforms, and called for urgent and effective action by companies.
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.
Calling for the proactive engagement of States, companies, international organizations, civil society and the media, Irene Khan concluded, “Tackling disinformation requires multidimensional multi-stakeholder responses that are well-grounded in the full range of human rights.”
The Expert: Ms Irene Khan was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expressionon 17 July 2020. Ms Khan is the first woman to hold this position since the establishment of the mandate in 1993. She teaches at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and was previously Secretary General of Amnesty International from 2001 to 2009 and head of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) from 2012 to 2019.
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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