How to tell what’s true online

Amanat Ali Chaudhry
Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The wars in the Middle East, South Sudan and Ukraine have heightened global tensions and deepened crises in the areas of peace and security, sustainable development and climate change. One way or the other, these contemporary challenges are intricately intertwined with information.

The way information is generated and disseminated is increasingly tainted by fabrication, manipulation, and distortion, a process that is facilitated by the rapid transmission capabilities of modern communication tools and online platforms. Such manipulation serves various political, social, and cultural agendas – in times of conflict and peace – with an aim to discredit scientific facts and stifle dissent.

The task of distinguishing truth from the intricate web of falsehoods and propaganda has become increasingly daunting. Even esteemed institutions like the UN are not immune from the dangers of fake news and disinformation, which get frequently subjected to attacks on their credibility and impartiality. Public opinion is systematically shaped by fake news, misinformation and disinformation, while hate speech is propagated to fuel discriminatory attitudes, push agendas and incite violence.

Amid these challenges, ensuring the accurate, reliable and timely dissemination of information is paramount, especially in terms of fulfilling the urgent need to bridge the digital gap between nations, employ effective strategies to combat disinformation and hate speech, and neutralize harmful content and false narratives.

The Committee on Information (COI), which was established under the UN General Assembly resolution 33/115 C of December 18 1978, in its 34th session, has been grappling with the task of crafting a consensus on what it now calls global principles to ensure information integrity on digital platforms.

The ongoing 46th session of the COI with Pakistan as its chair is consequential in the sense that deliberations, conclusions and guidelines vis-a-vis the question relating to information will enable member countries to make an informed contribution to the Summit of the Future.

In this day and age marked by the proliferation of conflicts and myriad of challenges from dealing with climate change and achieving the SDGs to reorienting the international financial architecture, the UN Charter is a true guarantor of promoting peace and security and building global consensus on investing in the welfare of nations.

In this fluid international environment, it is, therefore, important that the message from the UN is heard loud and clear, in its originality and the aims and objectives and activities of the UN continue to be promoted through fact-based, authentic and reliable reporting.

Let there be no doubt that fake news, disinformation and hate speech are the besetting sin of our times. They are being methodically, tactfully and shrewdly deployed to undermine the legitimacy of the UN by eroding people’s trust in the governing principles of the world body.

The international order created in the wake of the ravages of World War II is not only reeling under the weight of unmet expectations, power competition, and unwillingness to reform itself in line with contemporary demands but is also confronted with renewed challenges of an era that is being reshaped by the proliferation of fake news and disinformation.

It is therefore essential that we not only remain invested in the process of promoting and safeguarding the principles of peaceful world order but also double down on our efforts to counter misinformation, fake news and disinformation.

The following is instructive in this regard: Since our last session in October, we have seen how disinformation, fake news and propaganda were employed by an apartheid regime about the beheading of babies with a view to undermining the legitimacy of the Falasteeni and distracting attention from for its brutal war crimes in the besieged strip.

This is but one instance of the use of disinformation and fake news by the settler-state that underscores the urgency of developing a code of conduct, capable of ensuring information integrity, particularly in the digital spaces.

There is the need for instituting the code in a manner which protects the rights, aspirations and concerns of people under foreign occupation. Censorship, internet blackouts, manipulation of information, muzzling of free speech and the spread of fake news by occupation forces are being increasingly undertaken to discredit and de-legitimize the legitimate freedom movements.

Equally worrying is the increasing trend of the use of digital media platforms by certain states or state-sponsored organizations to further marginalize and disempower minority communities. This is tantamount to weaponizing information against them. Such practices not only undercut political freedoms and erode human rights but also violate the conventions and provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The extensive and varied array of online content poses a significant obstacle. Unlike traditional media, which is curated by professional journalists, online platforms feature content generated by users of varying expertise and credibility levels. This diversity complicates the establishment of consistent standards for information integrity that can be universally applied across all media platforms.

The decentralized structure of the internet adds complexity to attempts to regulate online content. Unlike traditional media, which is governed by regulatory bodies and editorial oversight, online platforms transcend geographical boundaries and regulatory jurisdictions. This presents challenges in enforcing a consistent code of conduct universally.

The commercialization of online content presents a hurdle in crafting a code of conduct for ensuring information integrity. Numerous media platforms depend on advertising income, motivating them to prioritize user interaction above the accuracy and trustworthiness of content. This profit-oriented strategy may result in the promotion of sensational or deceptive material to garner increased clicks and views, thus eroding the integrity of information disseminated through these channels.

The use of AI tools for propagating false information and digital surveillance is on the rise. Non-state and state actors are leveraging AI tools, such as deepfakes and generative AI, to spread disinformation and manipulate public opinion, thus posing significant challenges to the integrity of information.

The global principles for information integrity must unequivocally denounce any form of digital imperialism or one-sided actions and prioritize core principles such as human rights, dignity, cultural diversity, progress, justice, equality, non-discrimination, freedom, and security.

The dominance of multinational tech corporations, centralized platforms, and Western-centric norms on cyberspaces can infringe upon the sovereignty of countries to regulate their digital environments. Therefore, it is important to develop national digital sovereignty policies that uphold the right of countries to govern their digital spaces according to their laws and values.

There is a marked disparity in access to digital technologies and ICT infrastructure in developing countries such as Pakistan, which limits the participation of these countries in global information discourse and knowledge production.

This limitation is also harmful particularly during times of disaster, when communication is one of the most critical factors. To address these issues, there is a need to invest in expanding access of developing countries to affordable infrastructure, providing training and capacity-building programmes to enhance digital literacy and devices in marginalized communities and climate-vulnerable regions.

Women face disproportionate gender-based discrimination and harassment in cyberspace hindering their full participation and safety in digital spaces. Therefore, when considering a multilateral framework on the code of conduct, it is important to develop and enforce international guidelines to protect women’s rights in the digital sphere, preventing online harassment and violence. It is also important to provide capacity-building programmes and technical assistance to UN member states to provide women and girls with access to digital infrastructure and tools.

Alongside inclusivity, ensuring the safety of the digital realm is paramount. All stakeholders, including private-sector entities operating within the ICT landscape, must adhere to established principles, norms, regulations, and rules, thereby assuming responsibility for their conduct and being subject to accountability measures.

Moreover, facilitating the transfer of technology and knowledge to developing countries is essential in safeguarding their right to development, supporting sustainable development endeavours, and advancing equitable global access to digital resources.

These are some of the challenges in today’s digital landscape. Despite the complexities involved, efforts must continue to be made to uphold information integrity to safeguard the credibility and reliability of information in the digital age.

The writer is an alumnus of

the University of Sussex and has a degree in international

journalism. He tweets/posts @Amanat222