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    What is ‘False News’?

    Module 5: ‘False News’, Misinformation & Propaganda

    Definition

    In the digital age, the dissemination of information has evolved, giving rise to distinct yet interrelated phenomena: false news, disinformation, and misinformation, as well as malinformation.

    “False news” refers to purported news items that are intentionally and verifiably false and seek to mislead readers.(1) False news mimics the format of credible news reports, harnessing attention-grabbing titles, images, and content designed to persuade readers into believing falsehoods. Usually, false news online is disseminated to amass “clicks,” “shares,” and engagement to bolster advertising revenue or further ideological agendas.(2)

    The term has, in recent years, fallen out of favour due to the inaccurate implication that, despite being false, it nonetheless constitutes “news.”

    Disinformation constitutes intentionally false or misleading content that is strategically propagated to deceive, manipulate, or achieve political or economic objectives.(3)

    Lastly, misinformation entails false or misleading content shared inadvertently, lacking the malicious intent associated with disinformation.(4) Despite the absence of deliberate deceit, the unintended consequences of misinformation can still be harmful, contributing to public confusion and creating mistrust in reliable information sources.

    While misinformation and disinformation are premised on the dissemination of false information, malinformation is based on reality, with the information being used intentionally to inflict harm on a person, social group, organisation, or country.(5)

    The following table highlights the commonalities and differences among the three types of false information:

    Aspects Misinformation Disinformation Mal-information
    False information Shared without intent to deceive Deliberately spread to mislead Truthfully represents but aims to deceive
    Intent No intention to deceive Intentionally deceptive Intends to deceive despite truthful content
    Representation of reality Misrepresents without deceptive intent Misrepresents with deceptive intent Truthfully represents but deceives through intent
    Examples Unintentional sharing of false information Fake news, hoaxes, propaganda Half-truths, spin, selective disclosure
    Impact Can still have harmful effects Can have severe consequences Can mislead without outright lying
    Potential harm Can influence opinions and trust Damages trust, affects societal opinions Impacts perceptions and decisions

    International efforts

    Several initiatives at both the regional and international levels have sought to deal with the growing problem of misinformation and other forms of harmful information online in recent years.

    Of particular note at the international level is the 2017 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and “Fake News”, Disinformation and Propaganda (2017 Joint Declaration) issued by the relevant freedom of expression mandate-holders of the United Nations (UN), the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the Organisation of American States (OAS).(6) The 2017 Joint Declaration noted the growing prevalence of disinformation and propaganda, both online and offline, and the various harms to which they may contribute or be a primary cause.

    Amidst this evolving digital landscape, the declaration emphasised the transformative role of the internet and digital technologies in enabling access to information and facilitating responses to disinformation while acknowledging the responsibilities of intermediaries in respecting human rights.(7)

    Recommendations of the 2017 Joint Declaration  

    The 2017 Joint Declaration highlighted, however, that efforts to regulate these harms often have negative effects on freedom of expression and, thus, identified the following recommended standards:

    • General prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including “false news” or “non-objective information”, are incompatible with international standards for restrictions on freedom of expression, as set out in paragraph 1(a), and should be abolished.
    • Criminal defamation laws are unduly restrictive and should be abolished. Civil law rules on liability for false and defamatory statements are legitimate only if defendants are given a full opportunity and fail to prove the truth of those statements and also benefit from other defences, such as fair comment.
    • State actors should not make, sponsor, encourage or further disseminate statements which they know or reasonably should know to be false (disinformation) or which demonstrate a reckless disregard for verifiable information (propaganda).
    • State actors should, in accordance with their domestic and international legal obligations and their public duties, take care to ensure that they disseminate reliable and trustworthy information, including about matters of public interest, such as the economy, public health, security and the environment.

    The Joint Declaration called on state actors to ensure that they disseminate reliable and trustworthy information, and not to make, sponsor, encourage or further disseminate statements that they know (or reasonably should know) to be false or which demonstrate a reckless disregard for verifiable information.(8)  

    In 2023, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) also published Guidelines for the governance of digital platforms: safeguarding freedom of expression and access to information through a multi-stakeholder approach which “outline a set of duties, responsibilities and roles for States, digital platforms, intergovernmental organisations, civil society, media, academia, the technical community and other stakeholders” that will ensure freedom of expression and information.(9)

    5 Principles for Governance Systems

    The UNESCO Guidelines emphasise five principles that should underly all governance systems that impact freedom of expression and access to information on digital platforms, based on an extensive consultation process that considered over 10,000 comments from 134 countries:

    • Principle 1: Platforms should conduct human rights due diligence;
    • Principle 2: Platforms must adhere to international human rights standards, including in platform design, content moderation, and content curation;
    • Principle 3: Platforms must be transparent;
    • Principle 4: Platforms must make information and tools available for users;
    • Principle 5: Platforms should be accountable to relevant stakeholders.

    Footnotes

    1. Media Defence, ‘False News, Misinformation & Propaganda’ (accessible at https://www.mediadefence.org/resource-hub/false-news-misinformation-and-propaganda/). Back
    2. Baptista and Gradim, ‘Understanding Fake News Consumption: A Review’ (2020) 9(10) Soc. Sci 5. Back
    3. European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services, ‘Notions of Disinformation and Related Concepts’ (2021) at p. 30 (accessible at https://erga-online.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/ERGA-SG2-Report-2020-Notions-of-disinformation-and-related-concepts-final.pdf) (‘ERGA’). Back
    4. Id. Back
    5. International Telecommunication Union, ‘Session 5: Disinformation, misinformation, malinformation and Infodemics: Ways to handle’ (accessible at https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Regional-Presence/AsiaPacific/Pages/Events/2021/ASP Regional Dialogue on Digital Transformation/Session Pages/RD-Session-5.aspx). Back
    6. Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and “Fake News”, Disinformation and Propaganda (2017) (accessible at https://www.osce.org/fom/302796?download=true). Back
    7. Above n 8. Back
    8. Above n. 8. Back
    9. UNESCO, ‘Guidelines for the  Governance of Digital Platforms: Safeguarding freedom of expression and access to information  through a multistakeholder approach,’ (2023) (accessible at https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000387339). Back