Tackling disinformation to uphold democracy and human rights: UNGA HLW event 2022

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In September 2022, Canada and the Netherlands as co-chairs of the Media Freedom Coalition co-hosted a side-event during the UN General Assembly High-Level Week, alongside the Freedom Online Coalition and  International IDEA.

Hosted at the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations in New York, the event focussed on upholding democracy and human rights in the face of rising disinformation and featured an expert panel together with keynote speeches from H.E. Ms. Mélanie Joly, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, and H.E. Mr. Wopke Hoekstra, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The discussion, moderated by Robyn Kaplan of the Data and Society Research Institute, looked at how digital technology has enabled the proliferation of disinformation; how some states have curtailed media freedom and freedom of expression under the guise of tackling disinformation; and how state-sponsored disinformation campaigns are undermining peace, prosperity, and individual freedoms. The event aimed to showcase a democratic approach to addressing disinformation, with respect for human rights at its core.

In her opening remarks, Melanie Joly explained, “Our open societies are founded on having a pure set of facts which afterwards inform public discourse and public conversations, and make sure that politicians are held to account. Disinformation is corrosive to that fundamental truth and to democracy.”

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Photo courtesy of Canada's Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Can Yeginsu, deputy chair of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on media freedom, and one of the panelists, highlighted the importance of addressing the online information space, saying: “Algorithms that feed off our information only to amplify misogyny, racism, hate, disinformation – these cannot be left unchecked if democracy is to survive. So the High Level Panel will continue to work with Media Freedom Coalition member states to consider their individual legislative responses to these urgent challenges.”

He warned, however, that this alone would not be enough. “Just as critical to the preservation of the democratic order is further state action to protect journalists and independent media. Simply put, you cannot protect the truth, and fight truth decay, without protecting the truth-tellers – the journalists – and they are under attack like never before.”

Kevin Casas Zamora, Secretary General of International IDEA, emphasised that “Disinformation is a symptom of a much deeper problem of social distrust, anchored in very complex issues of inequality, rapid change, and the sense of loss of control over our fate that has proliferated during the age of globalisation … If we want to combat disinformation, we need to address the deeper issues that make disinformation fester.”

Teresa Hutson, Vice President, Technology and Corporate Responsibility and Microsoft, described disinformation as a “whole-of-society problem” which needed to be tackled by government, industry and civil society. She also explained that Microsoft is looking at two sets of ways to address it.

The first was to ask, “Where do we need to build things into our products, to prioritise authoritative content?” Meanwhile the second was to “do more externally to build societal resilience, and part of the way to do that is through transparency, to help people become more informed about the content they consume so they can make their own decisions.”

Related to this, Wopke Hoekstra highlighted the importance of helping the next generation to navigate an increasingly difficult information landscape and single out what is to be trusted. He also underlined the importance of press freedom: “We consider press freedom to be the best antidote to disinformation. An independent, pluralist media landscape gives citizens across the globe, and politicians, the best basis for engaging in dialogue.”

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Photo courtesy of Canada's Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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