The internet, since its arrival, connects people through different unique platforms. It enables public discussions on social networks and easy access to information. Despite its benefit, the internet has its downside. Hate speech (incitement to violence, discrimination based on race, color, ethnicity, etc.); disinformation (false or inaccurate information deliberately shared with the intent to deceive or mislead the public); misinformation (false or erroneous information disseminated unknowing or with the belief that it is true), and conspiracy theories on controversial issues are some of the downsides of the internet.
The internet is an avenue where you can express yourself freely. An expression of thought, speech, and information through whatever form is a recognized right in most nation’s constitutions. It could be as a constitutional or fundamental right and, it is also recognized under international bodies. Hence there is a strong connection between the internet and freedom of expression. The right to freedom of expression, even though it is an enabler of all rights and the core pillar of democracy is not absolute.
There are limitations or restrictions to freedom of expression; however, these restrictions must pass the three-part tests under human rights law. The condition must be prescribed by law, necessary in a democratic society and proportionate. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the limitation must be provided by law and to the extent needed to respect the reputations of others and protection of national security, public order, public health, or morals.
States use the legal mechanism to address some of the concerns or harm caused by false or misinformation. Hence regulate the internet through laws. Recently Ethiopia enacted the Hate Speech and Misinformation law without following the set standard for the restriction of freedom of expression that is the three-part tests under human rights. Most of these ill-conceived laws are responsible for shrinking civic space. The laws clamp down on free speech i.e., restrict free expression.
Though it is hard to tackle misinformation and the likes on the internet, however, before banning or regulating speech online, there is a need to think about the power to counter speech. Instead of limiting or stopping speech, fight hate speech with more speech. States must find a balance between regulating false or misinformation and freedom of expression.
Their concern is understandable, especially with the recent widespread conspiracy theories, baseless stories about the coronavirus, and the popular myth on social media that the pandemic is connected to 5G. There were different perspectives, debates, and negative misconceptions with no justifiable evidence. Rather than research to understand the problem, the number of likes, comments, a repost of the false information exaggerated or intensified the situation. It also increases panic and fear as everyone, and even amateurs became an expert on the issue (knew the causes, transmission, and cure of the virus). Furthermore, social media platforms indeed benefitted from the spread, e.g., bloggers usually want to attract traffic by getting people engaged in viral and controversial issues. Sometimes this false information is motivated by politicians, government, and concern groups. These groups benefit financially or otherwise, so they encourage it.
There are also harmful outcomes with the spread of false lies. The consequential effect from the misinformation circulated on social media with the 5G-COVID-19 conspiracy theories led the attacks on telecommunication – fire on cell towers/ 5G infrastructure without any evidence to substantiate such claim that 5G is linked to Covid-19.
At a meeting of foreign policy and security experts in Germany, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated that fake news was more dangerous than COVID-19 because it spreads faster than the virus.
In combating propaganda or misinformation, it is the duty of media, independence reporting, and government to tackle the problem by countering the false reports with fact-based news and accurate analysis to the public. There must be an intentional effort in releasing precise information on a frequent and consistent basis to reach a broad audience and make reference where to find accurate and useful resources.
To combat misinformation and ensure accessible, accurate, and reliable information, international organizations can support fact-checking projects in different regions. These projects will prevent the spread of misinformation and falsehoods i.e., root out or rebut misinformation before it goes viral.
People tend to rely more on the new media for information than the traditional media; as such, each actor has parts to play in preventing the dissemination of fabricating falsehoods across social media. It is crucial to verify the accuracy or authenticity of information on social media before sharing online.
Conservative outlets, mainstream media, States actors can work together to tackle and address fake news and misinformation. Establish clear standards and informed policy approaches to countering such information in digital spaces. Develop tools to detect and prevent escalation of falsehoods by the digital social networks. Platforms should review its guidelines and policies on harmful and abusive content.