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Tech firms ‘divided’ on engagement with civil society in fighting disinformation
Pic: Shutterstock

04 Mar 2021 / technology Print

Technology firms ‘divided’ on fighting disinformation

Law as a static instrument is almost useless in the application and execution of policies to protect free speech and informed online discourse, a Bar of Ireland discussion heard this week.

Understanding Disinformation: The Legal and Policy Response heard from former foreign correspondent and Storyful founder, Mark Little, that the initial democratic promise of the internet is at serious risk, with a digital ‘Iron Curtain’ now descending on certain countries.

Non-malicious

Sunniva McDonagh SC (EU Agency for Fundamental Rights) explained that it is essential to distinguish misinformation, which is non-malicious, from disinformation which is an organised campaign of disruption, aimed at deception and causing real-world harm.

Criminal actors may be at work in the spread of disinformation, and the information may be spread by internet bots and, thereby, boosted.

McDonagh referred to the European Commission’s definition of disinformation as ‘information that is verifiably false or misleading, created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally mislead the public’.

Rights to free speech should not be breached she said, but must be held in balance with the right to protect public health, and the right to protect democratic values.

Emergency situation

In an emergency situation, conspiracy theories and disinformation can spread, and this can undermine citizens’ trust in the rule of law and their willingness to comply with authorities.

People are being subjected to opaque data-driven algorithmic decisions that touch on their fundamental rights and human dignity, McDonagh warned.

“From a human-rights perspective, data is very important. The Fundamental Rights Agency has actually said that data saves lives, but data needs to be transparent,” she said.

“The criteria applied by public authorities needs to be clear, so that people know precisely on what basis various decisions are being taken,” she said. 

Media plurality is important, also, in combatting disinformation, she told the 2 March webinar, chaired by Sorcha Pollak.

But all actors in civil society must play their part, McDonagh said.

Social-media regulation

The print media, regulated by the Press Council of Ireland, could provide a model for the regulation of social-media platforms, McDonagh said. 

Kinzen Chief Executive Mark Little said that there had been a deep libertarian philosophy at work in many social-media platforms. 

He quoted Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, who in 2015 said: “We are the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.” The growing need for content moderation, therefore, came as a shock to these companies, he said.

Crushing dissent

Twitter had been forced to take certain steps by autocratic governments, he said.

“We are approaching a Cold War in the internet. We have governments, like India, who will now start to licence social media,” he added. 

If a free internet is not in their interest, autocratic governments will implement fake-news laws as a way of crushing dissent represented by democratic platform. 

As a result, a foundational set of rights to a free internet was required, Little said: “We can fight for a common assumption and standard of what is a free internet. What we’re doing is trying to protect freedom of speech, while restricting freedom of reach.”

People saying crazy or offensive things on the internet is not the problem, he added. 

That approach will lead to a suppression of freedom of speech, and be used as a cover for cracking down on dissent.

Democratic promise

“The problem is that the internet has been designed to create virality around things that make us feel emotional,” he added. “That promotion of virality, whether of disinformation or misinformation, is not a bug, but a core feature,” he commented.

However, it was important not to lose the original democratic promise of the internet, which gives marginalised communities a voice on their own terms, without being mediated by elite media and the Government.

Autocrats initially tried to close down the internet to stop free speech, he said, but then realised that by ‘flooding the zone’, they make everyone disbelieved.

“That is the secret of disinformation. Flood the information landscape with as much lies as you possibly can, and everybody will be disbelieved, and trust, in general, will be destroyed,” he stated.

Decentralising shift

Democratic platforms are being hijacked for anti-democratic means, he added. “That’s what makes this moment so dangerous,” because handing control of the internet back to national politicians would be a “great sabotage of the democratic power of the internet”.

However, Little detected a shift to decentralising internet power and the weakening of the bigger platforms.

“We have got to be really strong and not give away what has been gained from the internet,” he said.

Division emerging

“There is a little bit of division emerging in technology companies between those who are trying to develop centralised solutions inside the big platform, and those who are seeking out civil society co-operation to devolve power.”

He pointed to Twitter, Microsoft and Spotify as companies that are looking for ways to include civil society and community engagement at the several levels where oversight is needed.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland