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

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.

A Kindness Is Never Wasted

Miller AilsaBy Ailsa Miller

I had a feeling I would jibe with Halifax. I’m an extrovert. I get it from my dad. My family jokes that they can’t send either of us to the grocery store without supervision because we will inevitably see someone we know, or maybe meet someone new, and come back one hour later with no milk.

Camping at Polly’s Cove. Carrots, contemplation, and oopsy we ruined an engagement photo shoot.

But here, where the pace of life is slower, I have an outlet for my chattiness. People here are extremely friendly. I have yet to meet someone from Atlantic Canada who defies this stereotype.

To illustrate, the other day while out shopping I spent a solid 15 minutes chatting with a store clerk about her work as a photographer and her travel plans. We struck up this conversation because she mistook me for a client of hers—someone she’d taken wedding photographs for—when I walked in the door. Apparently, I have a Haligonian doppelgänger named… Chastity. I’m sure that as the city grows, things will change. But at least for now, it’s pretty perfect.

What’s more, Nova Scotia is beautiful. I say this even in spite of my bias in favour of mountains. Last week, my friend took me camping for an evening at Polly’s Cove, right on the ocean side. We set up camp in a natural alcove at the base of a massive granite boulder. After a quick—and I mean extremely fast—dip in the ocean, we scrambled up some boulders to watch the sunset over the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove then returned to our campsite to watch the full moon rise over the ocean. We sat for over an hour leaning against the granite watching and listening to the waves crash against rocks in the moonlight while fireflies flickered in the brush below us. It was enchanting. I don’t want to believe that I only have a week left in this place.

The Bay of Fundy. I was awestruck. The tide was coming in and I STILL winded myself running to the water. Never mind the deceased seal in the background.

We’ll just ignore the fact that this is my first blog post.

But since it is my first one, let me introduce you to the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) and what they do. The CLD is a small legal advocacy organisation that was started by Toby Mendel, a mathematician and an international expert in the right to information (RTI). He started the organisation after a long stint as Director of the law program at Article 19, an organisation that has operated in this area for years. He hired his current Senior Legal Advisor, Mike, right out of law school. They worked out of Toby’s kitchen for the first few years.

RTI refers to the right of individuals to access information from their governments and intergovernmental organisations. In other words, he’s an expert in access to information (ATI) law. RTI is often spoken about in terms of “freedom of information” and has been long been recognized as a pillar of democracy. As early as 1946, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 59(1) stating:

Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and … the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the UN is consecrated.[1]

Toby is pretty adamant, however, about the using the “right” language (pun intended). Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the “right to seek, receive and impart information”[2] as a constituent element of freedom of expression. But “Freedom of information” has only recently evolved beyond an aspiration and into a fully-fledged human right recognised by regional human rights systems,[3] international instruments,[4] and international jurisprudence.[5] In 1990, only 13 countries had ATI laws in place. That number has since increased seven-fold.

The CLD is perhaps most well known for the RTI rating they maintain (http://www.rti-rating.org/) but they also do a significant amount of direct advocacy. Both Toby and Mike are constantly jetting around the world, meeting with government officials and training bureaucrats who apply RTI laws, among other things. While they work primarily in the MENA region, Toby was recently involved in the re-draft of Sweden’s RTI legislation.

Though somewhat counterintuitive, strong democracies are often the most complacent about RTI. The quality of a country’s RTI legislation is not a direct indication of how transparent its government is. But a lack of adequate protections creates a situation ripe for abuse. It’s important that we don’t take the strength of our institutions for granted. Canada is a good example. We were one of the earliest to enact RTI legislation and were somewhat of a leader in this area. But we have failed to our laws up to date and in line with international best practices. Until this summer, the Access to Information Act had been the subject of only minor amendments. And it shows. Our system is notoriously slow and responses are often mostly or partially censored. The situation was so bad that in 2015 Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault referred to the Act as a “shield against transparency” rather than a mechanism for government accountability.[6]

Access to information is not a particularly sexy area of human rights work. It’s essentially a fight for basic institutional frameworks and bureaucratic efficiency. But I can’t overemphasize how important it is. Transparency is the core of democracy and at the heart of transparency is the right of the public to obtain and impart information about its government. Freedom of the Press, a hallmark of a free and democratic society, depends on strong protections for the right to information. The media are the most frequent users of ATI legislation. Secrecy and delays impact newsgathering and their ability to report on matters of public interest and to do so in a timely manner.

I am in admiration of Toby and Mike. They are tireless and dedicated; they devote an immense amount of energy to CLD’s work. And they never stop to question whether or not it’s worth it. This is what human rights work looks like – or at least it’s a version of it. It’s not always glamorous. You’ll write countless grant and project proposals to convince people that your work is worth supporting. You might feel distant, disconnected at times from the issues which are the subject of your work. Maybe, if you’re established in the field, you’ll get “on the ground,” so to speak, and get to meet with government officials and company executives to lobby for change; be invited to Parliamentary committee meetings to comment on incoming legislation; or even be asked to draft legislation. But working “on the ground” might mean months away from your family and friends.

Inevitably, however, you’ll feel sometimes like it’s all for nothing. Other times, you’ll feel like you’re making concessions or playing political games just to try and get things done. It might make you a bit cynical; you have to be a bit of an idealist, or what my partner calls a “grumpy idealist,” to keep going.

I think a lot of advocacy work can be compared to loosening the cap of a very tightly sealed jar. The first person to try to open it will give it everything they’ve got, but nothing will appear to have changed. It might feel just as impossible for the next person. But when someone finally gets the cap off, everyone can claim having loosened it for them! Mostly, though, everyone is just happy it’s open.

Forgive the basic analogy, but it’s one everyone can relate to. Also, I am the least creative. Ask anyone who’s ever seen me try to do art.

My experience at CLD has reaffirmed for me that there are a number of ways to contribute to our world. You don’t have to be a powerful person or big organisation to have a significant impact. What CLD lacks in size, they make up for in spirit and being smart about how and where they employ their resources. They are results oriented. They chose projects based on where they can have the greatest impact. They do a lot of work in the background. And I think there is a lot that is honourable in that.

I wear a pendant around my neck every day that symbolizes Aesop’s fable of the mouse and the lion. For those who are not familiar with the story, one day a lion is sleeping in the forest (…?). A mouse, who is basically a nobody in the animal kingdom, runs across the lion’s nose and wakes him from his slumber. The lion is not happy, so his obvious response is to kill the mouse. “Wait!” the mouse cries, “Spare me and I’ll repay you!” The lion scoffs but does the mouse a solid and lets him live. Later, the lion becomes trapped in a trophy hunter’s net. Unable to free himself, he lets out a loud roar. The mouse, hearing the lion’s roar, comes to his aid. Luckily, he is able to chew the rope loose and set the mighty lion free.

The moral of the story is that a kindness is never wasted, and even if you’re small you can still help another. Like the lion’s decision to spare the mouse’s life, or the energy the first person expended trying to open the jar, the impact of our actions is not always obvious in the short term. But that is no reason to become complacent or not to try. And just because you’re a nobody in the grand scheme of the universe doesn’t mean that your actions won’t be felt. I carry the message of the mouse and the lion with me every day. It’s a reminder to be humble, to serve others, and to remember that your work is never wasted.

[1] UN Resolution 59(1), 14 December 1946 as cited in Toby Mendel, Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey, (Paris: UNESCO, 2008), at 8.

[2] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 19 December 1966, 999 UNTS 171 art 19 (entered into 23 March 1976, accession by Canada 19 May 1976) [ICCPR].

[3] Toby Mendel, Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey, (Paris: UNESCO, 2008), at 9 (in particular, the Organisation of American States, Council of Europe and the African Union).

[4] Ibid at 14 (in Claude Reyes and Others v. Chile, on 19 September 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held that “in respect of the facts of the present case, the Court considers that article 13 of the Convention, in guaranteeing expressly the rights to ‘seek’ and ‘receive’ ‘information’, protects the right of every person to request access to the information under the control of the State.” See endnote 57).

[5] Toby Mendel, Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey, (Paris: UNESCO, 2008), at 17 (the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) was the first legally binding instrument to establish “clear standards on the right to information.”)

[6] “Egregious Delays on Access to Information Must Stop”, The Star (28 June 2015), online: <https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2015/06/28/egregious-delays-on-access-to-information-requests-must-stop-editorial.html>

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