Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
50th session of the Human Rights Council
I am pleased to address you today on this important and complex topic.
Let me begin with what I believe should be a key priority in today’s discussion: the restoration of public trust.
Our societal troubles do not start with disinformation, but they are surely aggravated by it. It is a symptom of the range of global diseases we face, one of which is systemic inequality, where deep-seated discrimination, increasingly fragile institutions, loss of trust in governance structures and limited rule of law threaten stability and peaceful co-existence.
Disinformation spreads when people feel that their voices are not heard. It arises in contexts where political disenchantment, economic disparity or social unrest flourish.
It flourishes when civil society, journalists, human rights defenders and scientists cannot work, assemble and speak freely. When civic space is limited, or closed. When the human rights to freedom of expression and access to information are threatened.
It can further polarise entire societies, particularly when it is actively promoted by Government and public officials. In those circumstances, it reaches large audiences, and may have significant negative consequence, including spreading hate, and even inciting violence.
In taking on the challenges that disinformation poses, we cannot fall into the trap of trying to officially ordain what is false, and what is true, and then attach legal consequences to those determinations. Our human right to access and impart information is not limited to only what is deemed by the State as ‘accurate.’
Such a binary analysis can be easily abused to suppress opinions, beliefs and political views. To restrict the kind of diversity of expression that is essential to healthy, functioning, democratic societies, or for the progress of science or arts.
Treading the dangerous path of content regulation based on official notions of ‘truth’ seriously threatens our rights to information and freedom of expression. And it runs directly counter to international human rights law.
Our focus therefore needs to be on assessing how communications are being revolutionized by technology and on unpacking who is responsible for what. We need to look at how best to contain the harms caused by disinformation, while addressing the underlying causes that give disinformation life and allow it to gain traction.
Concerns about the use of false information for nefarious purposes are not new: laws seeking to address defamation, fraud or misleading advertising have been the subject of extensive debates for decades. And throughout those debates, care has always needed to be taken to avoid the risk of stifling free expression or rights of third parties in the pursuit of other aims.
Today’s rapidly evolving online world is heightening those concerns given the speed and volume of information circulating. Organized online campaigns, often using automatic tools to amplify messages, can readily – and quickly - create false impressions of broad popular support for or against certain ideas, or be used to counter and marginalise dissident voices and ideas.
In the same way organized online campaigns can be used to undermine trust in political processes, they can also target and silence human rights defenders, journalists and holders of unpopular vantage points. And as a result of repeated attacks, women, minority communities and others can be deterred from participating in the public sphere.
These concerns demand responses, but responses that are crafted consistent with our international obligations.
When we debate the best ways to respond, we need to understand that censorship is not only an ineffective medicine – it can actually harm the patient.
While we look for solutions here today, one thing is clear – no solution can be effective if it does not place as a core objective the rights of access to information and freedom of expression.
I therefore call on States to uphold their international obligation to promote and protect these rights, whatever the social ill they seek to mitigate. Maintaining a vibrant and pluralistic civic space will be crucial in this endeavour. A space where journalists, human rights defenders, academics and activists can all safely contribute to debates. A space where they can help debunk myths and increase clarity on challenging topics.
Policy measures that support independent journalism and strengthen media pluralism and digital and media literacy are essential to support individuals navigate the complex information systems we all live with. Improved education systems that foster critical thinking can help in this regard.
States must also ensure wide and free access to information so that it reaches all communities and constituencies.
In particular, State officials should act with full transparency and share accurate information in a timely manner. Trust can never be achieved without genuine Government transparency.
Those in power who resort to disinformation to suppress speech they dislike or, to intimidate and harass critical voices must be held to account.
Addressing the scourge of disinformation is not just the exclusive responsibility of States.
Social media platforms have transformed the way information circulates in our society, and they have a clear role to play. To start with, we must understand better how they affect our national and global debates. While platforms have taken welcome steps to enhance their own transparency and redress channels, progress remains insufficient.
We need independent auditing of companies’ services and operations. We need more clarity on the way advertising and personal data is being handled. And we need access for researchers and others to the data within companies that can help us better understand and address disinformation.
There is not one single solution to stop disinformation.
So as we advance this discussion, I propose we keep in mind two critical needs:
First, we need to deepen our understanding and knowledge: we need more research on how the digital sphere has transformed media and information flows; on how best to build public trust within this environment; and on how different actors can contribute to countering disinformation operations.
Second, as recognized by the resolution that mandated this panel, we must ensure that all discussions are framed by human rights norms. Shortcuts do not work here: censorship and broad content take-downs are an ineffective and dangerous response.
The most effective antidotes to disinformation that we have at our disposal are the fundamental human rights of freedom of expression, more access to information and the right to privacy.
We must commit to putting those at the core of our approaches.
I wish you a productive discussion ahead.