Wash your hands often… and your newsfeed even more: disinformation in COVID-19 times

In the midst of a public health crisis, only one thing is more contagious than the virus itself – lies. How does disinformation affect our fundamental rights?

Everything about these past few weeks has been unprecedented. With almost half of humanity subject to restrictions because of COVID-19, people under lockdown are relying on digital technologies and social media more than ever to keep in touch with their loved ones, to work, to follow the latest updates … ultimately, to maintain contact with the ‘outside world’.

What we read online these days will not only affect our mental health, but it will also have an impact on the core of our civil and political rights. It can either strengthen our collective resilience or it can polarise society. Are you aware of how (dis)information is used strategically in times of crisis?

The power of (dis)information in the digital age

Manipulation through the media is something that was traditionally linked to authoritarian States. Today, any consolidated democracy granting free media speech risks false information entering its communication flow. Social media platforms, though useful tools for fostering public debate, make users easy targets for manipulators. All they need to do is come up with provocative posts and filter them into seemingly reliable sources. Data-fed algorithms and online interactions will do the rest, exacerbating the outreach of this ‘polluted’ information ecosystem. As evidence shows, lies spread faster than the truth online.

It is popular to refer to this phenomenon as fake news. However, this is imprecise and misleading, as it is used by politicians to discredit opinions they disagree with. Online false content may correspond to misinformation or disinformation. The difference between them lies in the intention of the sender. While someone who circulates misinformation does it inadvertently, disinformation is spread with the intent of deliberately causing harm. Both terms, however, are mutually reinforcing.

It is no coincidence that turbulent times are strategically used by agents – politicians, intelligence services, lobbying groups or unorganised groups of citizens – to ‘make a fuss’ out of a story. Indeed, disinformation campaigns have significantly increased in the past month, with conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 being frequently leaked to social media. The WHO has warned about the rise of an ‘infodemic’ in response to the myths circulating to this effect. Some have pointed to the origins of the outbreak coming from a Chinese laboratory or within the US Army. Social media is also being used to discredit democracies in their fight against the pandemic for political purposes. For instance, this report shows how the Catalonian independentist campaign has been furthered during the coronavirus crisis.

These messages appeal to our emotions and lead to self-confirmation biases, i.e. they tend to confirm our personal beliefs. Unavoidably, fake content will distort our judgement and reinforce our prejudices, leaving the sources of the information unchecked. Though sometimes harmless, disinformation has an impact on many aspects of our daily lives without us even noticing, which is why it is essential to provide a human rights reading on the issue.

Disinformation surrounding COVID-19 is undermining our civil and political rights

False and sensationalist content surrounding the coronavirus is already having an obvious impact on some of our most fundamental rights, including our right to health, as enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 12 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Indeed, transparency regarding health information is essential in empowering individuals to protect themselves adequately, whereas inaccurate medical advice might lead people to seriously risk their own lives.

But the issue goes much deeper in relation to our power of decision-making as citizens. Our right to freedom of opinion and expression is expressed in Article 19 UDHR, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Misleading information subverts our absolute right to form and hold our own opinion without any interference in the development of our personal beliefs, ideologies and positions. Moreover, freedom of expression encompasses our right to freely access, receive and impart information within a pluralistic environment. Is that what we think we do on social media?

Our exposure to online information is biased according to our preferences. These days, the filter bubbles we find ourselves in are filled with misrepresentations of reality. And they are certainly influencing our present and future behaviour. Our newsfeed is exacerbating hate speech, thus encouraging discriminatory patterns against certain groups. It is also reshaping our political tendencies while populist movements take advantage of fear in society to campaign for elections. Therefore, far-reaching implications can be discerned concerning the core of our fundamental rights, such as the right to non-discrimination (Article 26 ICCPR) and the right to free democratic processes (Article 25 ICCPR).

Tackling online disinformation is also a sensitive matter, as it can easily lead to censorship and website shutdowns. Jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights has anticipated that the removal or blocking of online content must be subject to a careful human rights scrutiny. Rather than resorting to an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, governments should empower citizens, civil society and media intermediaries to fact-check and self-regulate fake content. For instance, the EU established a disinformation task force and a Code of Practice for online platforms as part of their Action Plan Against Disinformation.

Beyond COVID-19: a time for public awareness

Defeating the virus will depend on a collective, large-scale response. Collective responses are built on mutual trust – trust in public health authorities, trust in governments, trust in our neighbours. And trust is easily eroded by hearsay – sometimes rightfully so. As long and uphill as the battle against COVID-19 may be, the full recovery period will be longer and harsher. Overcoming this crisis is everyone’s duty, which is why well-informed individual choices are essential for such endeavour.

Coronavirus has already taken many of our human rights away. Disinformation, however, may leave a permanent mark by fuelling polarisation and confrontation. Both governments and citizens must work proactively to protect human rights from manipulation, by flattening and lowering the disinformation curve.


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