Freedom of Speech – Defamation, Sedition, etc.

Protecting human rights in digital era


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Paper 2- Tackling disinformation

The article highlights the issues mentioned in the UNHRC report on disinformation and freedom of expression.

UNHRC Report: Upholding human rights helps dealing with falsehood

  • The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Special Rapporteur  submitted her report on “Disinformation and Freedom of Opinion and Expression” recently.
  • The UNHRC report specifically speaks of information disorder that arises from disinformation.
  • Impact of disinformation: Such information disorder leads to politically polarisation, hinders people from meaningfully exercising their human rights, and destroys their trust in governments and institutions.
  • Human rights provide a powerful and appropriate framework to challenge falsehoods and present alternative viewpoints.
  • Upholding human rights is useful in dealing with falsehood in two ways:
  • 1) Freedom of opinion and expression enables governance and development.
  • 2) Civil society, journalists and others are able to challenge falsehoods and present alternative viewpoints.
  • So, the report says that human rights friendly governance is both possible and doable; it is also desirable, as it protects political power against itself.

Review of the business model needed

  • The report asserts that reactive content moderation efforts” are unlikely to make any worthwhile difference in the absence of a serious review of the business model that underpins much of the drivers of disinformation and misinformation.
  • Problems of inconsistent application of companies’ terms of service, inadequate redress mechanisms and a lack of transparency and access to data re-emerge constantly.
  • Aalthough the platforms are global businesses, they do not appear to apply their policies consistently across all geographical areas or to uphold human rights in all jurisdictions to the same extent.

Need for legislative clarity on twin concept of misinformation and disinformation

  • The report highlights the lack of legislative and judicial clarity on the twin concepts of “disinformation” and “misinformation”.
  • It emphasises that the intention to harm is decisive to the disinformation.
  • “Disinformation” is false information disseminated intentionally to cause serious social harm.
  • In contrast, misinformation consists in the dissemination of false information unknowingly.
  • Nor are these terms to be used interchangeably.
  • Acknowledging the fact that “extremist or terrorist groups” frequently engage in the dissemination as part of their propaganda to radicalise and recruit members, the report disfavours any state response that adds to human rights concerns.

Other factors contributing to growth of disinformation

  • The growth of disinformation in recent times cannot be attributed solely to technology or malicious actors, according to the report.
  • Other factors such as digital transformation and competition from online platforms, state pressure, the absence of robust public information regimes, and digital and media literacy among the general public also matter.
  • Moreover, disinformation enhance the frustrations and grievances such as economic deprivation, market failures, political disenfranchisement, and social inequalities.
  • Disinformation is thus not the “cause but the consequence of societal crises and the breakdown of public trust in institutions”.
  • Strategies to address disinformation will succeed only when these underlying factors are tackled.

Issue of use of disinformation by states

  • A 2020 Oxford study of “Industrialised Disinformation” mentions that as many as “81 governments” use “social media to spread computational propaganda and disinformation about politics”.
  • Some authoritarian countries like Russia, China and Iran capitalised on coronavirus disinformation to amplify anti-democratic narratives.
  • Online disinformation also results in offline practices of violent social excursion on actually existing individuals and communities such as ethnic, gender, migrant, sexual minorities.

Consider the question “Reactive content moderation efforts are simply inadequate without a serious review of the business model that underpins much of the drivers of disinformation and misinformation on the social media platforms.” Critically examine.”


Will future itineraries of human rights in the digital era repeat past mistakes? The report offers grist to the mill for profound thought and conscientious action.

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