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 either a constitutional or fundamental right; in addition, international bodies recognize this right. 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 standard for restricting freedom of expression. Most of these ill-conceived laws shrink civic space, and these laws clamp down on free speech.
Though it is hard to tackle misinformation and the likes on the internet, banning or regulating speech online is not the solution; 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.
The 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, reposts of the false information exaggerated or intensified the situation. It also increases panic and fear as everyone, and even amateurs, became experts on the issue. Furthermore, social media platforms 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 to the attacks on telecommunication – fire on cell towers/ 5G infrastructure without any evidence to substantiate such claim.
At a foreign policy and security experts meeting in Germany, the 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, the media’s, independent reporting, and government should tackle the problem by countering the false reports with fact-based news and accurate analysis to the public. There must be an intentional effort to release precise information on a frequent and consistent basis to reach a broad audience and make references to find accurate and valuable resources.
International organizations can support fact-checking projects in different regions to combat misinformation and ensure accessible, accurate, and reliable information. 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 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 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 digital social networks. Platforms should review their guidelines and policies on harmful and abusive content.