Leiden University: Human rights should help fight disinformation

Professor of Media Law and Information Society Tarlach McGonagle is concerned about the increase in online disinformation and hate speech. He argues that human rights should guide new policies for the online world. McGonagle will give his inaugural lecture on 9 May.

New technologies have given us access to unprecedented amounts of information. This is a good thing, but it also means that disinformation and hate speech can go viral at lightning speed. Just look at the coronavirus pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. Spreading disinformation is not necessarily illegal, so this affects how governments and big tech companies deal with these kinds of online practices. According to McGonagle too little is currently being done in terms of policy and regulation.

‘Human rights can have a preventive effect, as long as there is good implementation and compliance by government.’

Preventive
To ensure more is done, McGonagle believes human rights should inform more policies on online practices. ‘Human rights can have a preventive effect, as long as there is good implementation and compliance by government.’ The European Court of Human Rights has already ruled that states are obliged to create a safe and healthy environment for everyone who wants to contribute to the public debate. If countries are serious about this, there are all sorts of things they can do practically and politically.’

One example of this is promoting media literacy. Governments should set aside resources for this and work with civil society organisations, educational institutions, the media and tech companies. McGonagle: ‘Getting everyone on board will be a challenge because it’s a complicated playing field. You have individuals participating in the public debate, governments with their policies and big tech companies that are very influential.’

‘I find it worrying that trust in the media and experts is falling.’

Protecting public watchdogs
McGonagle realises that it sounds idealistic to want to get everyone on board. ‘But it’s really important. The further east you go, to countries bordering Russia, the more you notice the effects of disinformation on the polarisation of groups in society. I also find it worrying that trust in the media and experts is falling and journalists, politicians and experts are increasingly being threatened. This makes it extremely important that the media and other public watchdogs are effectively protected and can continue to make critical contributions to the public debate. That is essential to any democratic society.’

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