Strategies to Address ‘False News’
Module 8: ‘False news’, misinformation and propaganda
Media and Information Literacy (MIL) Strategies and Campaigns
As a point of departure, UNESCO proposes MIL strategies and campaigns as a process which enables the detection and mitigation of dis- and misinformation and a means to combat its spread, particularly online.(1) MIL is an umbrella and inter-related concept which encompasses the following ideas:(2)
- Human rights literacy which relates to the fundamental rights afforded to all persons, including the right to freedom of expression, and the promotion and protection of these fundamental rights.
- News literacy which refers an understanding of the news media, including journalistic standards and ethics.This includes, for example, the ability to understand the “language and conventions of news as a genre and to recognise how these features can be exploited with malicious intent.”
- Advertising literacy which refers to understanding how advertising online works and how profits are driven in the online economy.
- Computer literacy which refers to basic IT usage and understanding the easy manner in which headlines, images, and, increasingly, videos can be manipulated to promote a particular narrative.
- Understanding the “attention economy”, which is one of the causes of dis- and misinformation, based on pressure on journalists and editors to focus on click-bait headlines and misleading imagery to grab the attention of users and, in turn, drive online advertising revenue.
- Privacy and intercultural literacy which relatesto understanding standards on the right to privacy and a broader understanding of how communications interact with induvial identity and social developments.(3)
MIL strategies and campaigns, such as the COVID-19 campaign by the UN detailed below, should underscore the importance of media and information literacy in general but should also include a degree of philosophical understanding. According to UNESCO, “[MIL strategies and campaigns should assist users] grasp that authentic news does not constitute the full ‘truth’ (which is something only approximated in human interactions with each other and with reality over time).”(4)
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated significant amounts of dis- and misinformation, ranging from allegations about how to use disinfectants to combat the virus to false claims that the virus can spread through radio waves and mobile networks. In order to counter this “infodemic”, the UN has taken five steps:(5)
- Produce and disseminate facts and accurate information. The UN identified the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the lead agency in the battle against the pandemic, responsible for transmitting authoritative information based on science while also seeking to counter myths. Identifying sources such as the WHO that produce and disseminate facts is a central tenet to countering dis- and misinformation.
- Partner with platforms and suitable partners. Allied to the distribution of accurate information is finding the right partners. The UN and the WHO have partnered with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to help persuade all telecommunications companies worldwide to circulate factual text messages about the virus.
- Work with the media and journalists. UNESCO has published two policy briefs that assess the COVID-19 pandemic which assist journalists working on the frontlines of the “infodemic” around the world to provide accurate, trustworthy and verifiable public health information.
- Mobilise civil society. Through the UN Department of Global Communications, key information on opportunities to access, participate and contribute to UN processes during COVID-19 have been communicated to civil society organisations (CSOs) to help ensure that all relevant stakeholders ae connected.
- Speak out for rights. Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently joined a chorus of other activists, to speak out against restrictive measures imposed by states against independent media, as well as the arrest and intimidation of journalists, arguing that the free flow of information is vital in fighting COVID-19.
Litigation Where Justifiable Limitations Exist
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides in article 20 that “propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law” and that “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”
In addition, article 4(a) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) requires that the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another colour or ethnic origin, must be declared an offence that is punishable by law.
Despite the importance of freedom of expression, not all speech is protected under international law, and some limited types of speech are required to be prohibited by states. However, there is a need for clear and narrowly circumscribed definitions of what is meant by the term “hate speech”, and objective criteria that can be applied. Over-regulation of hate speech can violate the right to freedom of expression, while under-regulation may lead to discrimination, harassment or violence against minorities and protected groups.
In instances where dis- and misinformation is so egregious that it meets the definitional elements of hate speech, prosecutions may be a useful and important tool in the protection and promotion of fundamental rights, includes the right to equality and dignity.(6) However, such litigation should be fully considered for unintended consequences and the possibility of jurisprudence which may negatively impact freedom of expression. Depending on the content of the speech and the harm that it causes, the publication of counter-narratives may constitute a useful complementary strategy to litigation.
For more information on this topic, see module 6 of this series.
Fact-checking and Social Media Verification
Alongside MIL strategies and campaigns and prosecuting instances of hate speech, another effective tool to combat dis- and misinformation is fact-checking and social media verification. According to the Duke Reporters’ Lab, in 2021 there were over 391 fact-checking projects debunking false news and misinformation in more than 100 countries, a sizeable increase from 186 projects in 2016, although the rate of growth has been slowing.(7)
In general, fact-checking and verification processes, which were first introduced by US weekly magazines such as Time in the 1920s,(8) consist of:
- Ex-ante fact-checking and verification. Increasingly and due to shrinking newsroom budgets, ex-ante (or before the event) fact-checking is reserved for more prominent and established newsroom and publications who employ dedicated fact-checkers.(9)
- Ex-post fact-checking, verification and “debunking”. This method of fact-checking is becoming increasingly popular and focuses on checking information published after the fact. It concentrates “primarily (but not exclusively) on political ads, campaign speeches and political party manifestos” and seeks to make politicians and other public figures accountable for the truthfulness of their statements.(10) Debunking is a subset of fact‑checking and requires a specific set of verification skills, increasingly in relation to user-generated content on social media platforms.
In addition to these tools, various other social media measures can be used. One which has attracted more attention recently is the prioritisation of verifiable content and deprioritisation of false content. Fact-checking is central to strategies to combat dis- and misinformation and has grown exponentially in recent years due to the increasing spread of false news and misinformation, and the need to debunk viral hoaxes.(11) Alongside MIL strategies and campaigns, fact-checking and social media verification is becoming increasingly important in the fight against false news and misinformation.
Regional Initiatives to Address Disinformation and Misinformation
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many states have resorted to combatting disinformation and misinformation through repressive means, contrary to international standards. For example, in March 2020, the Philippines enacted the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which declared the pandemic a national emergency and included a provision criminalising the spread of false information.(12) Similar anti-‘fake news’ criminal provisions were introduced in other states in Asia, including Vietnam,(13) Bangladesh(14) and Thailand.(15)
Despite such worrying trends, there have been certain initiatives aimed at combatting disinformation and misinformation through non-repressive means. In January 2022, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Senior Officials Meeting on Education launched the Training-of-Trainers Program to Counter Disinformation and Promote Media Literacy.(16) This project focuses on the role of education in combatting disinformation and aims to provide resources to educators to enhance critical thinking among students regarding social media and the risks of disinformation.(17)
The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry group counting multiple major technology companies such as Meta (Facebook) and Google,(18) has also been advocating for non-censorship-based approaches to combatting disinformation. Initiatives by this coalition and other internet companies, sometimes in partnership with journalists and civil society, include “establishing and maintaining fact-checking programs, conducting research into the issue, and investing in the development and roll out of digital literacy training to millions of people in the region.”(19)