While digital innovations have empowered people around the world, they have also amplified the spread of disinformation, posing serious risks for credible, free and fair elections. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, it brought with it what the World Health Organization described as an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation, particularly through social media platforms.
This digital roundtable, organized in partnership with the Universal Rights Group, considered the impact of disinformation and hate speech on free and fair elections, the role of social media companies in mitigating the impact of their respective platforms, and what a human rights-based solution could look like that strikes a balance between protecting freedom of expression and ensuring the integrity of elections.
This live conversation took place on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.
Our panelists include:
Dominique Day, Chair of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, and Executive Director of Daylyt
Kate Jones, Oxford University Law Faculty, and Associate Fellow at Chatham House
Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion
Amy Mitchell, Director of Journalism Research, Pew Research Center
The conversation was moderated by The Carter Center's Avery Davis-Roberts following opening remarks from Danica Damplo of the Universal Rights Group.
According to the Carter Center, “the electoral process is a linchpin in the overall protection and advancement of basic human rights and the safeguarding of democracy.” A successful election can set a country on a course to long-term democracy, stability and the improved enjoyment of human rights. Likewise, credible elections are also only possible in an environment in which human rights are respected. These include freedom of expression, freedom of information and the right to privacy, as well as freedom from discrimination. While these rights are enshrined under international law, what is less well understood is how to ensure their protection via social media.
Social media platforms have generated rapid pathways for disinformation and hate speech. Independent reports commissioned by the U.S Senate Intelligence Committee have reported the presence of numerous accounts across multiple social media platforms engaging not only in propagation of disinformation but also of racially divisive language. Disinformation campaigns employ micro-targeted outreach to disseminate politicized misinformation, stoke grievances, and incite hatred and violence. They benefit from targeted advertising, featured on most social media platforms, and which enables selective outreach to consumers based on qualifiers such as age group, gender, race etc.
Intentional disinformation campaigns came to wider public knowledge with the publication of the Mueller report on Russian government interference in the 2016 U.S elections. The manipulation of information can affect the extent to which elections are free and fair, as well as how credibly they will be perceived. Governments need to take this seriously, but so too do the private companies who have become a part of the media and information landscape. While Twitter and Facebook have stepped up efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 related disinformation and hate speech, NPR noted that, ‘experts say the Internet has gotten only more flooded since 2016 with bad information.
Ahead of the U.S Presidential election in November 2020, Presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden criticized Facebook, noting that the spread of unchecked disinformation, ‘puts the very integrity of our elections at risk.’ Disinformation also looks to threaten upcoming elections in Poland which are reported to have experienced a disinformation campaign with Russian ties. Similarly, civil society in Georgia have requested Facebook to identify and remove disinformation campaign pages from the platform. In light of these developments, understanding the role of social media platforms in maintaining information integrity while protecting the freedom of expression is necessary to create an accountable cyberspace that does not seamlessly enable disinformation campaigns and election interference.
The COVID-19 pandemic, the protests against systemic and structural racism and police brutality that have emerged in all fifty U.S states (and across the globe), and looming elections, have moved up the timeline for action. It will be critical for experts and practitioners in the election and human rights field, in collaboration with social media companies and States actors, to develop workable solutions in a manner recognizing the importance of freedom of expression while responding to the seriousness of the challenge to democracy posed by online hate speech and disinformation.