The rise of misinformation and disinformation
What is published or said (or banned or concealed) can impact many human rights
- The right to life: as the example of Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda shows, the radio station in Rwanda which operated in 1993-94, was singularly blamed for unleashing propaganda that led to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. Its main financier, Felicien Kabuga, was finally arrested in 2020, but in 2023 the Hague Tribunal dismissed the case against him, as due to dementia he was declared unfit to face trial.
- The right to privacy: Lurid images of victims and survivors are often published without the consent of the individuals involved, and without regard to their right to privacy. Public interest often necessitates such publication, both to inform the public, invoke revulsion against violence, and create a database of evidence for future prosecutions. YouTube has long believed in publishing uncomfortable images in videos which serve an archival purpose, so that historical record is not distorted.
- The right to freedom of expression: Newspapers and magazines in some countries block opinions inimical to what the establishment wants. But public discourse is distorted when inconvenient and contrarian views are not aired. Governments don’t help matters – European cities have already begun banning rallies by those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and Litprom, a German literary organization that was to honour the award-winning Palestinian writer Adania Shibli, on its own cancelled the ceremony that was to take place at the ongoing Frankfurt Book Fair.
- The right to seek, receive, and impart information: In an age of rapidly diminishing attention span, providing context is crucial. But it is increasingly difficult for anyone to get an accurate account of what is going on. On top of that, in the current conflict, telecom infrastructure in Gaza has been severely destroyed, blacking out communication access. Internet and telecom access in Gaza must be restored, so that the local population, facing the unprecedented demand by Israel to shift southward or face consequences, can get crucial information that can help families reunite or save lives.
Media companies’ responsibilities
So what should we expect of media companies in times like these? Clearly, there are two kinds of media companies involved. Traditional media companies have their editorial processes and codes of conduct to present information for their audiences. But many traditional broadcasters have blurred the line dividing facts and opinions. Some are also accused of suppressing facts that interfere with the publication’s thinking. Erosion of media credibility, and belief in alternate media platforms is one consequence.
At the same time, social media platforms want to have it both ways: they want the attention of their audiences (to generate more advertising revenue) keep them glued to their sites without accepting responsibility for the content they carry. It has its advantages: it allows dissidents to voice their opinions against governments that disregard human rights. But it also provides space to purveyors of falsehoods, which can have dangerous consequences during armed conflict. Furthermore, some social media platforms claim to uphold free expression, but meekly comply when powerful governments order certain content to be taken down.
The roles of traditional media companies and social media companies are different, but their impacts on civilians and their audiences are not dissimilar.
First, we must recall that these companies have human rights responsibilities, and are also vital public sources of information that can advance freedom of expression and information as enabling rights, which help realise other rights. Media companies are not meant to play the role of an arbitrary censor who get to decide what’s good for their audiences. They should abide by the prevailing law, but since some governments apply such laws arbitrarily or selectively, including blocking access to content they don’t like in the name of preventing terrorism or protecting national security, which in many instances suppresses free speech, media companies should conduct their own heightened due diligence during periods of conflict to sift through the orders they receive. That means identifying human rights risks and consulting widely with affected parties, free speech specialists, academic and legal experts, civil societies, and in particular vulnerable groups affected by propaganda. They should verify what they publish, permit all sides to present their version of stories, and resist the temptation of crafting a narrative that plays into the hands of conflicting parties. Media companies should also be prompt in publishing retractions and corrections prominently when they get facts wrong, and apologise or offer other appropriate remedies through their own grievance mechanisms or by complying with court orders. And when governments make unreasonable demands to suspend access to sites or the Internet, they should resist, unless the demand is from a legally authorised entity, and is necessary, time-bound, proportionate, non-discriminatory, and reasonable.
The renewed Middle East conflict is not the first, nor will it be the last conflict in which truth will get manipulated. For millennia, military commanders and politicians have suppressed truth or suggested falsehoods, to build a stronger case for their own belligerence.
Today, growing public skepticism of mainstream media, combined with the growing use of deep-fakes and authentic-looking texts emerging through artificial intelligence, is making warfare through words and images ever more menacing. Media companies have taken steps to develop their own codes of ethics on how to report conflict, even in the digital age, and media organisations have detailed guidelines specific to regions on protecting sources and protecting the reporters and photographers at the front-line.
Those are necessary and important standards that apply to all. But there is so much more to be done to protect audiences. Media organisations have their work cut out – to examine their conduct, continually assess their impact on their audiences, and train their reporters so that their actions do not lead to civilians being harmed during armed conflict. These and other steps are urgently needed, and would demonstrate that the actions of all involved in media are consistent with human rights responsibilities.
* This article first appeared on the Institute for Human Rights and Business website: What human rights responsibilities do media companies bear during conflict? | Institute for Human Rights and Business (ihrb.org) and we are grateful to IHRB and Salil Tripathi (Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB) for permission to reproduce the article here.