Protecting human rights in the age of disinformation

Synopsis: Despite the threat of information disorder (spread of disinformation), human rights-friendly governance is both possible and achievable.


The Supreme Court of India (SC) recently warned against any attempt to curb free speech. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Special Rapporteur gave a report on “Disinformation and Freedom of Opinion and Expression”, which is to be discussed between June 21 and July 9.

  • Justices Dhananjay Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat stated that any attempt to curb information on social media or harassment caused to individuals seeking/delivering help on any platform will attract a strong use of jurisdiction by the Court
  • The SC instructed the registrar to place this order before all district magistrates in the country. It also asked the central and state governments to inform all chief secretaries/director generals of police etc. 
  • The SC supports the principle that abuse of public power cannot irrationally or randomly curb the freedom of speech, press, and media platforms.
  • Human rights provide a powerful framework to contest lies and present alternative viewpoints. It justifies utilitarianism of human rights as freedom of opinion allows development. Journalists are able to contest lies and present alternative viewpoints. 
Findings of the UNHRC report

The UNHRC report talks about “information disorder.” It rises from disinformation which is politically dividing, deters people from importantly exercising their human rights, and destroys their trust in governments and institutions.

  • Firstly, the UNHRC criticized inherently blanket internet shutdowns. The report declares that content moderation efforts will not make any difference.
  • Secondly, the problem is in the varying application of companies’ terms of service. The global platforms do not apply the same policies across all geographical areas or uphold human rights to the same extent.
  • Thirdly, Internet shutdowns don’t curb disinformation but obstruct fact-finding. It is contrary to rights against discrimination when meant to silence minority voices and stopping them to get access to vital information.
  • Fourthly, the report clearly upholds that disinformation risks the right to freedom of opinion and expression. It poses a threat to the safety of journalists and the media ecosystem. 
  • Fifthly, the report stresses that the intention to harm is decisive in disinformation as false information is spread intentionally to cause serious social harm. 
  • Lastly, the report mentions factors contributing to the growth of disinformation. These include,  
    • Factors such as digital transformation and competition from online platforms.
    • State pressure and the absence of robust public information regimes. 
    • Digital and media literacy among the public.
    • Frustrations and grievances of a growing number of people.
    • Decades of economic deprivation, market failures, political disenfranchisement, and social inequalities.
What did the Oxford study find out?
  • A 2020 Oxford study of “Industrialized Disinformation” states that 81 governments use social media to spread propaganda and disinformation about politics. Facebook and Twitter even removed more than 3,17,000 accounts and pages. 
    • However, the cyber troops act as agents of political parties and a tool of geopolitical influence.
    • Some authoritarian countries like Russia, China and Iran benefitted from coronavirus disinformation to increase anti-democratic narratives designed to dent trust in health officials.
  • Cyber troops are available for pro-party propaganda, or post insult campaigns, trolling and producing plots that drive division and polarize citizens. 
  • Online disinformation also results in offline practices of violent social trips on actually existing individuals and communities such as ethnic, gender, migrant, sexual minorities. 

Read Also :-Disinformation issue in Cyber Space

The conclusion
Reactive content moderation efforts are simply inadequate without a serious review of the business model. The report offers useful material for reflective thought and diligent action.

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