The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many aspects of our lives, including the global conversation on human rights.

On 8 April 2020, the Right On consortium, led by the Universal Rights Group (URG), the Permanent Mission of Norway to the UN, the Permanent Mission of Denmark to the UN in Geneva, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the UN Popular Fund (UNFPA), the Geneva Human Rights Platform (GHRP), the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, the Essex Human Rights Centre, and the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP), held their first web chat titled ‘Fighting online hate speech and fake news in a global crisis’.

Dr Bahia Tahzib-Lie (Human Rights Ambassador, Kingdom of the Netherlands), Dr Andrew Fagan (Director, Human Rights Centre, University of Essex), Ms Mona Rishmawi (Chief, Rule of Law, Equality and Non-Discrimination Branch (ROLENDB), Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)), Ms Simona Cruciani (Political Affairs Officer, UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect), and Ms Paige Morrow (Senior Legal Officer, ARTICLE 19) shared their insights and perspectives on the rise of online hate speech and propagation of fake news amid the COVID-19 crisis.

UN action on hate speech content

The panellists discussed the priorities and actions that have been taken in relation to online hate speech. While they noted that hate speech has for a very long time been a concern for the UN, which resulted in the adoption of the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech and other policy guidelines, the Coronavirus outbreak demonstrated that no state is immune to racism, xenophobia, and discrimination.

In order to combat the acceleration and dissemination of hate speech, the speakers emphasised the need for a strong human rights based approach to COVID-19, given that the crisis impacts the entire spectrum of fundamental freedoms and rights.

Even though the crisis has disrupted the functioning of UN human rights bodies, including the Human Rights Council (HRC), the discussants were hopeful that there will be a transition and continuity of activities through online platforms, given that an informal meeting with HRC member states has been scheduled by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Michelle Bachelet Jeria.

Combating fake news

Speaking on the issue of fake news, participants pointed out that the pandemic has created fertile ground for fake news. In order to combat this surge of fake news, the advice and instructions provided by medical experts and institutions, such as the UN and the World Health Organization (WHO), should be given priority.

The discussants also touched upon the effect that measures, such as the enactment and amendment of national laws, have on preventing the spread of false COVID-19 information. They also spoke of the effect these measures have on the freedom of expression. Even though this is not an absolute right in itself, it is nonetheless essential to democracies.

Stressing that individuals have the right to be wrong, even in times of emergencies, the speakers highlighted the need to be cautious and not hasten policies on fake news, but consider potential future consequences of such practices.

Even though misinformation and hate speech often overlap, especially since Coronavirus rumours often have ethnic or racial elements, there is a need to distinguish between the two.

Getting tech companies on board

In regard to the involvement of the private sector on hate speech and fake news, the speakers agreed that we need to have tech companies on board. While they have their respective internal content policies and regulations, difficulties arise in the dichotomy between harmful content and what is legally considered as hate speech.

In order to overcome this challenge, the creation of a social media council, analogous to the former press council, was proposed. The council would be independent of tech companies and would have the responsibility to develop common approaches in terms of regulation of hate speech.