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19 Okt 2023

Salil Tripathi, IHRB

CSO reminds media companies of their human rights responsibilities & calls for human rights due diligence in conflict periods

"What human rights responsibilities do media companies bear during conflict?", 19 October 2023

...Hamas extremists staged a surprise raid into Israel, in which more than 1,000 people were killed, and over 200 hostages were taken.  Israel’s response has so far reportedly killed over 3,000 people in Gaza. A grave crisis is escalating, with growing fears of wider regional conflict.

What human rights responsibilities do media companies bear at a time like this? And when they fail, whose role is it to set things right? In the fog of conflict, it is natural to expect media organisations to uncover the truth, but to do so they must be robustly impartial and neutral...

The rise of misinformation and disinformation

A huge photograph in the Times showed wounded children with a bold headline that spoke of the deaths of Israeli children... As with legal documents, many people don’t read the fine print. Intentional or not, actions such as these... have eroded media credibility. This gives fuel to conspiracy theorists and disseminators of propaganda and lies to dominate airwaves and the Internet with misinformation... and disinformation...

Another set of media companies – social media platforms – are particularly vulnerable in this regard. They argue that they simply cannot control everything being said on their platforms. ...By doing little to restrain the flow of lies on platforms, social media platforms run the risk of being complicit in the abuses that follow.

What can be done to address this difficult reality? The European Union has already begun to inquire into the role of X, the company formerly known as Twitter. Meta, which owns Facebook and other platforms, has redoubled its efforts to weed out falsehoods, having learned it the hard way after its experiences in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India, and elsewhere, where messaging services and platforms were used to pit communities against one another.

In the present conflict, X, which dissolved its trust and safety council (disclosure: IHRB was a member of one of the disbanded groups within the council) has essentially outsourced fact-checking to a feature called ‘community notes,’ which relies, with little quality control, on the goodwill of individual users to provide contextual information correcting disinformation or misinformation. Such an approach is doomed to fail, as malicious players know how to exploit  weaknesses and regulatory gaps.

What is published or said (or banned or concealed) can impact many human rights

  • The right to life...
  • The right to privacy...
  • The right to freedom of expression...
  • The right to seek, receive, and impart information...

Media companies’ responsibilities

The roles of traditional media companies and social media companies are different, but their impacts on civilians and their audiences are not dissimilar.

First, we must recall that these companies have human rights responsibilities, and are also vital public sources of information that can advance freedom of expression and information as enabling rights, which help realise other rights. ...media companies should conduct their own heightened due diligence during periods of conflict to sift through the orders they receive. That means identifying human rights risks and consulting widely with affected parties, free speech specialists, academic and legal experts, civil societies, and in particular vulnerable groups affected by propaganda.