The World Jewish Congress, together with the Universal Rights Group, and the UN University for Peace hosted an event entitled, The Spread of Conspiracy Myths Online: What are the Implications for Human Rights, during the 46th session of the United Nations Humans Rights Council.
The panel was moderated by Universal Rights Group Executive Director Marc Limon, who noted that event came at a crucial timing, saying, "The fresh and raw and extremely topical nature of this subject means we have to be willing to talk about it and we have to be willing to raise awareness about and think about the human rights implication and human rights solutions.”
Umej Singh Bhatia, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Singapore to the UN in Geneva, described the state of conspiracy myths and misinformation saying that "the scale of this threat is only growing" and noting that everyone is “just a click away from forwarding disinformation.” Bhatia concluded his opening remarks by noting that “Throughout history whenever you have had fake news or disinformation about a particular religion- just look at the example of Europe and the Jews - you have had catastrophic effects. Of course, we agree the right for freedom of opinion and expression is a fundamental right, but in multi-racial, religiously plural Singapore, free speech stops, for us, at the boundary of giving offensive to race or religion. We take the position that right to speak freely goes in hand with the duty to act responsibility.”
Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression, added that “censorship is not the answer to killing disinformation of any kind. We need to remember that it’s not a binary conversation we are having here. What researchers have found is that disinformation flourishes in data deficit - where information is lacking.” Khan noted that right of freedom of speech is guaranteed in Article 19 of the University Declaration of Human Rights and the Convent and Civil and Political Human Rights, describing describing the right as “very broad,” and adding that “it's not absolute right, it does include restrictions, but the restrictions have to be applied very narrowly.”
Guilherme Canela, UNESCO Chief of Section of Freedom of Expression, outlined the problems of misinformation as well as potential solutions. Canela noted that "the solution is related to the structural problems and one of the structural problems is the lack of transparency of what is going on.” Canela added that it was important for platforms and institutions to implement a multidimensional approach to the problems and not confuse the problems of online misinformation and bigotry, saying that “quite often we are mixing in the same bag things like hate speech, conspiracy theories and disinformation. Obviously, these things have connection points, but they are different phenomenon. If we mix all the same bag, it will be very difficult to develop the solution to tackling those issues.”
Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, noted that conspiracy myths were particularly historically harmful to the Jewish community, saying, “antisemitism is at the heart of conspiracy theory.” Shaheed added that the “digital age makes it even more imperative that we take assertive action, reinforced action underlying this issue,” adding that it is crucial for people to meet and learn from each other in person. Shaheed noted that his report on antisemitism found that “antisemitism was far more deep-rooted and pervasive in countries in where there was any, or a large Jewish population... because they have never come across a person to dissolve these myths.”
Jonathan Bright, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford Internet Institute, noted that conspiracy myths offer “comforting, quite simplistic rational for explaining very complex global event,” adding “If we look at the history of conspiracy theories, the type of person who believes them is the type of person who is perhaps going through a dramatic experience.” Bright noted that this has been exasperated with continued spread and lingering question of coronavirus, as well as the increased exposure people have to these conspiracy myths online.
Leon Saltiel, WJC’s Representative to the UN in Geneva, said that “conspiracy myths and misinformation on the internet can have real results in life, meaning there is no difference for us between the online space and the real space. These things are one of the same." Saltiel concluded his remarks noting that the preparators of recent attacks of synagogues in the United States and Europe have expressed conspiracy myths that target Jews.
Iakovas Iakovidis, Greece’s Deputy Permanent Representative, noted that “conspiracy theories do not have ideological origin, they do fall on the right or left part of the political spectrum.” Lakovidis concluded his remarks asking how governments can protect the members of the press who are targeted by conspiracy theorists.
Yvette Stephens, former Ambassador of Sierra Leone in Geneva, asked how can states work with the platforms without the issues in the hands of the platforms, since platforms can’t be held responsible by the international community.
Diane Ala'i, Representative of the Baha'i International Community’s United Nations Office in Geneva, called for more freedom of speech and more opportunity to respond to misinformation. Ala'i concluded her remarks by noting that it is crucial for people to meet and learn from each other in person.
David Fernández Puyana, UN University for Peace Ambassador, concluded the event by echoing the concerns of his fellow panelists and reiterating that “freedom of expression [is] a fundamental principle of democracy.” He strongly suggested taking into account the “Rabat Plan of Action,” which considers the distinction between freedom of expression and incitement to hatred, in the common fight against hate speech.