Submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression

Research type:
Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfuss, Gabrielle Lim, and Brian Friedberg
Published on
February 15, 2021

The Technology and Social Change team submits the following comment to Irene Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, to inform her to the Human Rights Council in June 2021. This submission reviews some of the core challenges facing freedom of expression with regards to , , and and suggests recommendations to address and mitigate these issues.

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Executive Summary

Disinformation at Scale Threatens Freedom of Expression Worldwide

Comment of Joan Donovan, Emily Dreyfuss, Gabrielle Lim, and Brian Friedberg of The Technology and Social Change Team at the Harvard Shorenstein Center1

The human right to freedom of expression includes the right to have access to such expression. Increasingly, that access is threatened by social inequalities and the technological systems that hold the world’s information. Within the fragmented media ecosystem of the 21st century, opaque algorithms, policies, and enforcement mechanisms determine what information is available to whom. These crucial information distribution systems – from search engines to social media, from messaging apps to legacy news publications – are vulnerable to abuse by people wishing to inject false or misleading information into the ecosystem, to cause harm, or further their own agendas. This process is known as disinformation. In the following comment, we argue that mitigating disinformation is not at odds with the right to freedom of expression. Rather, we demonstrate that mitigating disinformation is essential to safeguarding the human right to freedom of expressions and access to truth.

Based on our research and domain expertise, disinformation violates the right to freedom of expression and the right to information and truth in the following ways:

  1. It makes it harder to access timely, relevant, and accurate information
  2. It takes advantage of algorithmic amplification to intentionally mislead
  3. It silences its target victims through harassment, incitement of fear, and by crowding out their words, opinions, and other forms of expression

We do not dispute that those wishing to spread disinformation have a right to express themselves. However, we point out that the right to freedom of expression does not convey the right to have that disinformation amplified at scale, and that by doing so, may actually lead to self-censorship, oppression, and other harmful effects that are counter to a democratic society.

This is in large part due to the internet’s network effect that can accelerate the spread of disinformation and massively increasing the number of people it may reach. Social media, especially, brings with it mechanisms and tactics that allow for large-scale coordinated disinformation campaigns that are often hard to recognize and nearly impossible to mitigate once they have reached millions. The effect of some disinformation campaigns is real world harm, such as hate crimes, violence, harassment, and the perpetuation of discrimination.

To balance the right to express oneself with the right to access the expressions of others, including time-sensitive true and necessary information, we recommend adopting community-based curation methods for internet content. We explain that content moderation – the method for handling disinformation most commonly used and advocated for – is reactive and therefore insufficient. But by adopting a proactive curation policy that is grounded in community input, coupled with moderation when necessary, we can create an information ecosystem that promotes truth over sensationalism, accuracy over popularity, and can additionally be subject to more effective oversight.

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  • 1Authors thank Spring 2021 Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic students Clara Carvahlo e Silva and Melyssa Eigen for their valuable assistance in preparing this comment.