The UN Human Rights Council adopted a plan of action to combat disinformation last week. Find out why disinformation is more than just a nuisance, it’s a threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
When I was growing up, we could trust the news. Canadian television journalists like Lloyd Robertson, Peter Kent, Harvey Kirk and Earl Cameron were respected and admired for their honesty and professionalism.
In the print world, we could read icons like Gordon Sinclair, Pierre Berton, Jeffrey Simpson, or Barbara Frum. We knew that what we read in the Telegram, the Star, or the Globe would be accurate and objective.
Once we could receive TV news from the US, we got to know David Brinkley, Barbara Walters, and of course, the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite. Everyone knew about journalistic standards, and nobody raged against so-called “fake news.”
Cable News and Internet Have Opened the Floodgates
It’s not that ethics within the much-maligned “mainstream media” have changed. However, cable news, and especially the Internet have opened the floodgates to a flow of far less reputable outlets and personalities.
The issue of disinformation has grown to the point that it came to the attention of the United Nations last week. The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has adopted a plan of action to tackle the problem.
Not surprisingly, Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania sponsored the resolution along with Japan, the UK, and the US. The resolution focused on the responsibility of national governments to counter false narratives.
“Deliberate Dissemination of False Information”
The resolution condemns “the increasing and far-reaching negative impact on the enjoyment and realization of human rights of the deliberate creation and dissemination of false or manipulated information intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either to cause harm or for personal, political or financial gain.”
Announcing the resolution, the UN Human Rights Council explained that, “although disinformation is not new, modern-day digital tools and social media platforms have allowed maliciously incorrect information to spread widely, before false facts can be challenged and removed.” This drives the strategy that purveyors of fake news adopt.
It takes far more time to fact check disinformation than it does to generate it. So, stemming the tide of fake news has become a Herculean task for anyone committed to the truth.
Quack Remedies, Anti-Vaxxers, and Anti-Maskers
One of the biggest obstacles disinformation has caused for the UN was managing the COVID-19 pandemic. In what was dubbed the infodemic, quack remedies, anti-vaxxers, and anti-maskers overwhelmed the efforts of agencies like the World Health Organization to organize an effective, science-based response.
The conflict in Ukraine has also been plagued by fake news. For example, the UN Human Rights Council heard from the International Committee of the Red Cross that a “deliberate and targeted campaign of misinformation” obstructed humanitarian efforts to save lives in that war zone.
The goal of the fake news was to sow distrust of the Red Cross relief workers. They’ve been falsely accused of organizing forced evacuations. Naturally, the Red Cross is facilitating safe passage for civilians out of war zones, but nobody is being forced from their homes against their will by the Red Cross.
Reporters Have Died or Mysteriously Disappeared
Journalists trying to counter the misinformation and propaganda infesting Ukraine face persecution. Seven reporters have died, 15 more have come under attack, and 22 journalists and activists who’ve condemned the invasion have mysteriously disappeared.
The UN’s office in Columbia told the UN Human Rights Council that people throughout Latin America received WhatsApp messages reading, “Stay home, the UN will bring you food.” This was a hoax that caused destitute people to turn up at the UN office looking for something to feed their children.
At last year’s General Assembly, the UN condemned “any advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, whether it involves the use of print, audiovisual or electronic media, social media or any other means.”
Take Advantage of Free Speech to Spread Lies and Hatred
Dictatorships and hate groups take advantage of the way democracies value freedom of expression to spread lies and hatred. No human right, not even free speech, is unlimited.
For example, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights provides that, “Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law,” and, “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”
Human Rights Meaningless Without Well-Informed Public
Democracy and human rights become meaningless without a well-informed public. So, disinformation is more than just a nuisance. As the General Assembly put it, “All forms of disinformation can negatively impact the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.”
The General Assembly called on its member to states “to counter all forms of disinformation through policy measures, including education, capacity-building for prevention and resilience to disinformation, advocacy and awareness-raising.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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