The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression Irene Khan presented her latest report on disinformation and freedom of expression during armed conflicts (A/77/288) at the Third Committee Interactive Dialogue of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly.
14 October 2022, New York
[Check against delivery]
Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen
I am grateful for the time and attention that Member States give to my mandate and honoured to be here at the Third Committee to present my thematic report on disinformation and freedom of expression during armed conflicts.
In June 2021 I presented my report on disinformation to the Human Rights Council, and have been pleased to find that the General Assembly last year and the Council this year have adopted resolutions, which have reflected many of the recommendations in my report.
Building on my first report, in this one I focus on certain forms of information manipulation – namely disinformation, propaganda and hate speech – during armed conflicts, and the roles, responsibilities and responses of States and social media companies. The report is neither comprehensive nor definitive, but as in the case of my earlier report, I hope it will contribute to further reflection, consultations, normative development and constructive action by Member States, companies and civil society.
Let me start with my key findings and make four points.
First, the information environment has become a dangerous theatre of war in the digital age. States, armed groups and their agents, enabled by digital technology and social media, are weaponizing information to sow confusion, feed hate, incite violence, discredit human rights defenders and journalists, disrupt humanitarian activities and prolong conflict.
Information has long been manipulated in times of war to deceive and demoralize the enemy but what is new and deeply worrying in today’s conflicts is the scale, spread and speed of disinformation, propaganda and hate speech, and the targeting of civilians, particularly vulnerable and marginalized groups.
During armed conflict, people are at their most vulnerable and in great need of accurate, trustworthy information to ensure their own safety and well-being, and yet, that is precisely when they are being hit with false or manipulated information, internet shutdowns or slowdowns, information blackouts and other restrictions on information.
Second, social media platforms play a dual role in modern conflicts. On the one hand, they provide a vital means of communication and access to critical life-saving information. On the other hand, they enable the amplification of disinformation, propaganda and hate speech.
It is worth noting that radio, print and television are still the most common source of news for most people in conflict areas, and many State-controlled media are super-spreaders of propaganda and disinformation.
Third, States are the ultimate duty bearers of human rights. State practice on information varies from those that promote the free flow of information in line with international human rights standards, to those that seek in the name of countering disinformation to restrict freedom of expression beyond what international law allows, to some that are themselves making, sponsoring and spreading disinformation and false propaganda within and across their borders.
There is also considerable confusion and disagreement about what is disinformation, propaganda and hate speech, and the concepts are being turned on their heads, for instance when factual information and independent media are delegitimized as ‘fake news’, UN human rights reports are discredited and patently false State propaganda is promoted as facts.
Fourth, digital technology and social media have created a new paradigm that has exposed ambiguities, uncertainties and potential gaps in international law which are permitting State and non-State actors to undermine or violate human rights and humanitarian principles with audacity and impunity.
So, what are my conclusions and key recommendations?
First, the right to information is not a legitimate target of war, it is a fundamental human right. Freedom of expression, which encompasses the right to seek, receive and disseminate diverse sources of information, must be upheld by States in times of crises and armed conflict as a precious ‘survival right’ on which people’s lives, health, safety, security and dignity depend.
Second, countering disinformation is vital for safeguarding human rights and restoring public trust but to be effective, all such measures must be grounded in human rights.
Using national security and counter terrorism laws to restrict speech, censoring critical voices, attacking independent media and disrupting the Internet do nothing to combat disinformation and much to erode freedom of opinion and expression as well as public trust in the integrity of information which is vital for preventing and resolving conflicts as well as protecting civilians.
I said it in my report last year and I repeat again: the best antidote to disinformation is trustworthy public information, access to diverse and verifiable sources of information, promotion of independent, free, pluralistic and diverse media, and investment in digital literacy.
Third, many of the problems with social media platforms in conflict situations are similar to those in other settings but made significantly more dangerous because higher risks and vulnerabilities during war. Companies need to do much more to ensure they carry out timely and enhanced human rights due diligence in line with UN guidelines, adopt effective, human rights-compliant policies, processes and business practices, ensure user security, invest in understanding the local context, and improve their own transparency and accountability.
Furthermore, while companies have taken steps to improve crisis response and content moderation in some cases, they need to respond with the same commitment to human rights in all conflict situations around the world where they operate.
Fourth, threats to freedom of opinion and expression during armed conflicts are complex and multifaceted and best tackled with multi-stakeholder collaboration, grounded in human rights, that fully engage civil society and media alongside States, international organizations and digital companies.
Fifth, international humanitarian law must be strengthened and the relationship between human rights and humanitarian law must be reinforced so that freedom of opinion and expression is better protected during armed conflict. The issue of extra-territorial application of human rights should also be revisited to address accountability for disinformation that threatens human rights from across borders.
Finally, let me end by reiterating that it is through respect for human rights and humanitarian principles that the integrity of information as well as the safety of civilians during armed conflict can be assured.