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The session identified core issues relating to disinformation, amplification, and intimidation in the context of journalism and in a digital environment. It further explored different solutions to these problems.
The moderator, Ms Elisa Lees Munoz, Executive-Director International Women's Media Foundation(IWMF) explained that the session will focus on problems related to ‘disinformation, amplification and intimidation’ in journalism and on finding possible solutions for attacks against journalists and their profession.
Mr Christophe Deloire, Secretary-General for Reporters Without Borders, identified two problems regarding unfair competition in today’s journalism. First, he said that a dangerous distortion of news competition occurs in the ICT space between verified and tolerable content and hate-filled and untrue information, often referred to as fake news. This trend is supported by a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that shows that false information has a potential virality that is much higher than actual verified information. This gives fake news an advantage over verified content.
Deloire identified another sphere of competition, that between countries controlled by despotic regimes and democratic ones. While despotic regimes have the capacity to control media and limit their constituents’ access to outside information, democracies could die because of a systemic crisis of public space fueled by the multitude of (dis)information.
Deloire mentioned RSF’s efforts to support victims of harassment and abuse through capacity-building measures and through provision of legal support and other types of material assistance. These are, according to him, essential to avoid increasing self-censorship.
In addition to that, RSF has adopted a two-tiered approach to fight issues of fake news and discrimination. They have created an independent commission on information and democracy composed of 25 public figures from 18 countries, which issued a declaration on information democracy. Most recently, 12 heads of states endorsed the declarationin a common press release.
The second element of the adopted approach is to create incentives for platforms to publish trustworthy information. In working on a European solution that could be upscaled internationally, RSF is pushing for standardisation schemes similar to ISO accreditations. Certification will help to establish whitelists and create incentives for different stakeholders to publicise verified content through indexation and rankings that can be viewed by the public.This trusted third party mechanism is purely principle-based and thus avoids governments or platform operators to determine what contents are verified and tolerable.
Ms Amy Awad, Legislative and Regulatory Policy (Broadcasting and Digital Communications), Canadian Heritage, mentioned the major changes in production and consumption of news and information that the ICT revolution has brought with it. However, increased accessibility of news has not only brought positive effects, but also access to fake news, having the potential to undermine social cohesion. She explained that in Canada, the majority of the people expressed concern about these developments and supported government intervention.
According to Awad, this spike in disinformation and intimidation comes at a time when journalism is in decline and the volume and scope of professional journalism is decreasing. Additionally, disinformation itself bears many regulatory challenges given that most of the issues are cross-sectional in nature and solutions for these problems require international multistakeholder approaches.
To mitigate the effects of misinformation and fake news, governments should support access to data for researchers and facilitate access to it. Governments should also support civic literacy programmes and implement them in educational systems. She recognised that the implementation of these programmes might not have immediate results and since people might still refer to fake news rather than verified outlets, educating people on digital literacy is essential in our day and age.
Ms Joy Wathagi Ndungu, Vice President/Co-founder at Digital Grassroots, Lead Coordinator for the East Africa Youth Internet Governance Forum, said that especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, censorship is a major issue faced by journalists. She underlined this assertion with many examples of legislation, such as a political cartoon ban in Uganda or the raising of taxes for content publishing.
Ndgungu also spoke about the treatment of women in the profession who are often victims of bullying by their male colleagues, noting that male journalists often disregard and distrust information gathered and produced by their female counterparts.
Ndungu identified strategic litigation as a possible avenue to overcome the challenges faced by journalists in many African countries. While recognising the time and resource constraints that this approach entails, she emphasised the fact that legislation affecting journalists is often created and adopted by people without much knowledge of digital issues. Therefore, pushing back on these issues through litigation constitutes a good way to improve regulations at their inception.
These efforts should be paired with advocacy efforts, which, according to Ndgungu, are currently under-utilised across the continent. Their aim should be to educate people and policymakers alike and point fingers at discriminatory legislation.
Ms Swati Chaturvedi, Journalist/Author, noted that most female journalists in India get rape threats daily and that their private information is often subject to leaks and disclosure. This situation puts them at constant risk and drives many journalists to self-censorship or to a change of path.
During her investigation for her publication ‘I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP's Digital Army’, Chaturvedi found that these campaigns are organised and traced them back to India’s party in power. She noted that, similarly to other countries, leading parties and governments view the media as the enemy of the people.
Chaturvedi explained that her primary, reliable resources were her investigative skills and that she had a rather pessimistic view of finding solutions to these problems. She expressed concern about the fact that many of defamatory and hate speech campaigns hidden in the form of fake news are often state-sanctioned and used to interfere in internal and external affairs. Fighting back and contesting fake news is not a viable strategy according to her, given that these news are spread in echo chambers that can be disrupted only if people return to a fundamental respect of the right to freedom of expression.
By Cedric Amon