On living through an infodemic

Hanna RiosecoBy Hanna Rioseco

This summer, the World Health Organization (WHO) hosted the first Infodemiology Conference, focused on understanding, measuring, and controlling infodemics.

The term “infodemic” was coined by the WHO to describe the rapid spread and overabundance of information – some accurate, and some not. In a situation report published in early February, the WHO warned that infodemics make it difficult to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance. During COVID-19, the consequences of misinformation can be a matter of life and death: a study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene estimates that between January and March 800 people around the globe may have died because of coronavirus-related misinformation.

Mitigating the risk of COVID-19 includes tackling the spread of misinformation that often accompanies outbreaks. Like a virus, misinformation spreads from person to person, but through information and communications technology systems.

I don’t have to consult the WHO, however, to recognize the information crisis for what it is: I’m living, scrolling, and sorting through it myself. Since February, my newsfeeds have been crowded with COVID-19 related news, stories, and memes. But the content that comes across my screen is not all accurate, or even useful. I’ve seen acquaintances criticize government directives about social distancing and question the effectiveness of mask-wearing; conspiracy theories regarding the origins and nature of the virus, some fueled with harmful sentiments; and medical misinformation such as untested at-home remedies. In Canada, a Carleton University study found that 46 percent of Canadian respondents believed at least one of four unfounded COVID-19 theories. 

To curb the spread of misinformation, the WHO has been active in the digital space by partnering with influencers to spread factual information. They have also been working closely with search engines and social media platforms to ensure that science-based health messages from official sources appear first in search results or newsfeeds. These efforts are being made to combat dangerous rumors, for example, that COVID-19 cannot survive in hot weather, or that chloroquine medication can prevent the virus. Additionally, the WHO is using artificial intelligence to engage in social listening and gain insights about the types of concerns people have about the virus. In theory, this will help officials to better tailor health messaging to meet the needs of the public. As I researched and reported on pandemic-related changes to access to information laws for the Centre for Law and Democracy’s COVID-19 Tracker, I also learned about how some States have used the infodemic surrounding COVID-19 as justification for harsh disinformation laws. Though aimed at protecting public health by curbing the spread of misinformation surrounding COVID-19, these laws have in many cases resulted in the detention of journalists and the criminalization of free speech. These responses raise a multitude of concerns, not only regarding human rights but also concerning how communications and information policy and legal frameworks can support access to reliable information moving forward.

During my internship at the Centre for Law and Democracy, I learned about how governments can mitigate the harmful effects of misinformation surrounding COVID-19 by fulfilling their right to information obligations. In a time where things feel more uncertain than ever, States can rebuild public trust and confidence by providing access to timely, reliable information. As I think about what I’ve learned about freedom of information and expression, and reflect on how our information systems and policies have failed to keep people informed and protected during this crisis, I am left with more questions than answers. What can this moment teach us about regulating the information environment? The problems posed by misinformation will, in all likelihood, outlast the virus, and require a multi-stakeholder solution. How can our digital communications infrastructure better safeguard against the harms of misinformation? What role should the private digital companies play? Should platforms censor or label content they identify as being false or misleading, or would that set a dangerous precedent for the moderation of free speech? And of course, where do human rights fit in?

Tracking the impact of COVID-19 on the right to information

Hanna RiosecoBy Hanna Rioseco

This summer I had the unique opportunity to explore, in real-time, how public health emergencies affect information policy and the legal frameworks that govern the right to information. The right to information is an integral component of the right to freedom of expression. Enumerated in multiple human rights instruments, access to information enables people to make free and informed decisions. Freedom of information is fundamental for government transparency and accountability and is an important safeguard against corruption. Effectively realizing the right to information generally entails a legal regime that requires public authorities to proactively disclose important information, and also establish procedures through which the public can make requests for publicly held information.

COVID-19, however, has placed constraints on the ability of public authorities to accommodate information requests. For example, many public agencies were required to shut down completely at the onset of the virus, causing delays in responding to requests or publishing information. As a result, some States have amended the rules governing the right to information to extend or suspend statutory time limits, to accommodate remote work, or in some cases to prioritize the procurement pandemic related information. The Centre for Law and Democracy’s COVID-19 Tracker, which I helped to keep up-to-date throughout my internship, lists the various legal changes governments have made to their right to information processes and laws.

Tracking how States altered their information laws proved to be challenging in and of itself. Some changes were passed via legislatures, whereas other changes were mandated in executive decrees or tied to emergency orders. Locating the exact law or decree was difficult for countries that lack the online capacity to upload information to and manage websites. Sometimes, I could only find evidence of how public agencies adapted to COVID-19 working conditions on the Twitter of Facebook pages of local information commissions. Though the most common legal response was for governments to extend or suspend the statutory deadlines associated with filing or appealing information requests, some countries have made exceptions for requests related to COVID-19 and public health.  

In a report on freedom of expression during COVID-19, the UN Special Rapporteur noted that while temporary disruptions in the ability of governments to fulfill their right to information obligations may be expected during COVID-19, those disruptions should only take place where necessary for public health and safety. Generally, human rights instruments specify that restrictions on the right freedom of expression must meet a three-part test: the restriction must be provided by law, it must seek to protect a legitimate interest set out in international law, and it must be necessary. In assessing whether a restriction is necessary, Courts will first assess whether the restriction was proportionate to the aim pursued; a limitation might not meet the “necessary” requirement if less intrusive measures are available to meet the same public health objective. For example, a blanket suspension of the processing of freedom of information requests will seldom be necessary or proportionate, because access to information and government transparency are both extremely valuable for public health.

Access to information is particularly important during COVID-19, as governments and individuals are engaging in high-stakes decision making daily. In this context, governments must continue to fulfill their obligations and ensure people have access to timely and reliable information. The UN Special Rapporteur noted that “a public health threat strengthens the arguments for open government, for it is only by knowing the full scope of the threat posed by a disease that individuals and their communities can make appropriate personal choices and public health decisions.” Pubic authorities should attempt to proactively disclose information as quickly as possible, as individuals and communities need access to timely and reliable information in order to make informed personal choices and effective public health decisions. With more pressure than usual on public officials to support and guide us through this crisis, it is also important that governments retain public confidence by remaining transparent about their decision-making processes and policy objectives. Access to information enables the public to hold decision-makers accountable for their actions and can safeguard against harmful policies; it strengthens the capacity for people and governments to respond to COVID-19 and can save lives.

In the context of a global pandemic, the ability to access timely and accurate information has never felt more important. Tracking and reporting how governments have, or have not, promoted the right to information has taught me valuable lessons about how governments can, and should, respond to public health emergencies, and how emergencies affect various legal systems. I also learned about how international human rights law can guide States in responding to emergencies in a way that promotes human dignity and retains the principles of responsible governance. Lastly, my work this summer showed me first-hand the watchdog role civil society organizations can play during a pandemic by keeping tabs on government emergency responses that impact fundamental human rights.

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