How to tackle disinformation?

Michael O’Flaherty, FRA Director
Opening speech by FRA Director Michael O'Flaherty of the annual Human Rights Communicators Network meeting on 28 June 2021. The meeting address how to tackle disinformation and communicating human rights in the digital age.

Today, we have only one focus at this annual conference of the Human Rights Communicators Network, a group that is facilitated by the Fundamental Rights Agency. And that focus is disinformation. In essence, lies intended to harm. This, of course, is deeply relevant to our work. We see it every day in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. We saw it spectacularly in the context of the US presidential elections.

We have one focus. We also have one context. The context is the work of human rights communication professionals who need to deliver their human rights messages in a complex, confusing, challenging environment.

We also have one goal. The goal is simply to identify, apply tools and strategies for human rights communications. In order to achieve that, we have to dig deep over these two days to deepen our understanding of the phenomenon of disinformation, of the challenges and also of the opportunities.

I'm very pleased on behalf of the Agency to welcome you all for this discussion over two days. We have a great group of speakers, panellists and participants from a very wide array of backgrounds, experience, even geographies. And I look very much forward to the exchange.

Before the debate gets going, I would like to put on the table seven positions, principles or understandings that are informing the engagement of the Fundamental Rights Agency on this issue.

In the first place, at least for us as an agency, we adopted the definition of disinformation put forward by the European Commission. In other words, verifiably, false or misleading information that cumulatively is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public. And that may cause public harm. It is just one among many definitions of misinformation. It is the one we use.

Second, we have to acknowledge, given the nature of our work, that disinformation undermines human lives and thereby human rights. Just think of the disinformation in the context of Covid and the impact that this has on the most basic right of all, the right to life. Many other human rights also are impacted, including very worryingly, threats to the right to hold freedom of opinion. Freedom of opinion is one of the very few absolute non-negotiable rights in the canon of human rights, and it is under threat through disinformation.

Third, we need to acknowledge and then see what we do about the fact that where disinformation thrives, that has something worrying to say about our societies and about the health of the culture of human rights within such societies.

Fourth, still, with human rights, as we figure out how to tackle disinformation, we will have to struggle with difficult issues of respect for human rights, including freedom of expression. It's self-evident that freedom of expression means that we simply cannot deal with all disinformation through a takedown strategy. But again, this would need to be the subject of your discussion over these two days. And in this context, I see a crossover to the contemporary debate on regulation in the European Union in the context above all of the proposed Digital Services Act.

Fifth, our discussion on disinformation has to go beyond disinformation. It has to address the measures that we human rights practitioners take in response. And there are so many threads to be played with here, including what role data plays. How can we gather and deploy data in a way that repudiates lives? This is not straightforward, and it is challenging. It is a considerable significance for the Fundamental Rights Agency because we are the world's largest gatherer of human rights-related datasets.

Sixth, we need to explore the clear link between disinformation and the broader discussion of how to communicate better. This has been a preoccupation of ours for a number of years now. It remains a continuing concern. It's at the origin of the establishment of the network of communicators, and I look forward to the findings of these days feeding into that broad work of the communications network.

Seventh, it would be of interest and value for us if you look at the specific issue of how to combat disinformation through media literacy.

To conclude my remarks, as I said at the outset, I am in Brussels right now. I spent time at the House of European History, which has a temporary exhibition on the topic of disinformation. It is a fantastic and fascinating exhibit. It presents one after the other, some of the great deceits of history, everything from the donation of Constantine right down to the origins of the antivaccine movement in the 1990s.

The exhibition makes a case, a plausible case, of the extent to which lies have led to some of the great disasters of history. For example, it presents a thread from the Dreyfus Affair to the Protocols of Zion through the Holocaust. It is a chilling reminder of what lies can do, and have done, in our history. It is a reminder of the high stakes and of the critical importance of this discussion, and thus it is in that spirit, I wish us all the very best for the two days of debate.