Fake news, propaganda and disinformation has always existed. What sets today apart from years gone by is its rapid dissemination and global reach, experts say. 

Concerns raised by the instant propagation of fake news in the digital age and the harmful impact it has on the credibility and independence of journalism, democratic values and human rights were examined by a panel of experts Tuesday at a side event of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“It is interesting how the perception of the term fake news has evolved and been manipulated because it described fabricated, inflammatory content, which very often is distributed through social media,” said Thomas Hajnoczi, Austrian Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva.

He said this posed dangers because “in our digital age, every individual has access to the internet where fake stories can be read by millions around the globe, and for many it is always hard to know what is true and what is incorrect.”

Eileen Donahoe, executive director of the Center for International Governance Innovation at Stanford University and former U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Council, called digital technology a force for good.

She said it has played “a very positive role in facilitating the free flow of information, access to information, blossoming of freedom of expression globally.

“It has also made possible the democratization of the means of distributing media and information.  And, it just generally has been a positive force for the human rights movement.”

However, Donahoe warned that there were many forces working in the opposite direction and there was no guarantee that digital technology “would be a net force for good.”

She singled out emerging dangers from the so-called weaponization of information in the post-Brexit, post-U.S. presidential election world.

“It can be a very potent force in undermining democratic discourse and disrupting democratic processes, and that fake news … itself destroys the quality of discourse in democracy and undermines the relationship between citizens and their government,” Donahoe said.

Speaking from personal experience, Rasha Abdulla, associate professor in the Journalism and Mass Communication department at the American University of Cairo, agreed.

She said that in the past few weeks, her government has been blocking websites, particularly news websites.

“Right now, we are estimating that between 53 and 57 websites, mostly news websites, independent websites, have been blocked.

“So, if you block sources to proper independent journalism, you are only left with fake news. I mean, where else are you going to get the news,” Abdulla said.

Social media groups such as Facebook, Twitter and Google have come under increasing criticism for producing and swiftly disseminating fake news on their sites.

Peter Cunliffe-Jones, chairman of the International Fact-Checking Network, an umbrella organization for independent nonpartisan fact-checking organizations, noted that tech companies have been coming under a lot of pressure — particularly in the U.S. election — to put the brakes on fake news.

“We have been seeing since then, Google, Twitter, Facebook and other platforms starting to work on strategy to tackle, themselves, the fake news problem at their level,” he said.

For example, he said that Facebook has agreed in several countries to work with independent nonpartisan fact-checking organizations to examine disputed claims of fake news signaled by Facebook users.

“We are living in what I think of as an age of information hysteria,” said David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. “The easiest way to deal with information we do not like is to censor it, to shut it down, to block a website.”

He called censorship a lazy way to deal with information we do not like.

“I think there is a growing dissatisfaction with freedom of expression and it is simply reflected by states. I am not saying that fake news, or whatever we want to call it — disinformation or propaganda — is not a problem,” said Kaye. “But what I am saying is that we should not be moving toward solutions … that are all about prohibition and censorship.”

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