Disinformation as human rights challenge

Rauno Merisaari,
Ambassador at Large on Human Rights,
Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland,

Janette Sorsimo,
MFA Finland Focal Point for the Freedom Online Coalition,
Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland,

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of open, free, secure, reliable, and interoperable Internet. Mis- and disinformation online, with a number of political, commercial and other motives has significantly increased during the pandemic.

The creation and dissemination of false information, even deliberately, is not a crime in itself. However, it can be used for criminal purposes such as incitement to hatred. It can also erode public trust in democratic processes and institutions, destabilize and polarize societies and fracture community cohesion.

We need both legal and political tools in combatting disinformation.

The volume of online disinformation is rapidly growing. According to a recent Eurobarometer study (March 2021), over 50 percent of Europeans believe they have encountered online disinformation. On the other hand, the consumption of fake news sites is relatively speaking still very low and only a small portion of online information flow is disinformation.

Freedom of expression and right to information are legally binding human rights in international law. Most human rights, including freedom of expression, are not absolute and they can be restricted in exceptional circumstances. All measures in preventing disinformation must be necessary, proportional and in line with international human rights obligations.

Democratic societies and the rule of law

Some states use measures to counter disinformation for asserting government control over the use of the Internet, with disregard for international human rights law and principles of a free, open, interoperable, reliable and secure Internet. Governments can find free civil discourse undesirable as it hinders the possibility to act quickly.

Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic has required setting limitations to certain rights of movement in order to safeguard the right to health and life all over the world including in democratic societies, such as Finland. In spring 2020, the Finnish government temporarily restricted freedom of movement as the pandemic spread to Finland. However, these restrictions did not derogate the provisions of the European or international conventions on human rights.

Right to health

Right to life and the right to the highest attainable standard of health are universal human rights. Lack of factual knowledge and mis- and disinformation have driven harassment and violent acts against health care workers and medical establishments. The International Committee of the Red Cross recorded more than 600 violent incidents during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Researchers suggest that COVID-19 vaccines have become the new battleground for states’ online influence and disinformation campaigns. The aim is to undermine confidence in rival vaccines with misleading or amplified negative information. All states should abstain from conducting and sponsoring disinformation campaigns, and condemn such acts.

Role of business and civil society

Combatting disinformation cannot be solely a government endeavour. For-profit corporations are responsible for a significant part of information production and they have responsibility over the content published on their platforms. Private sector companies should address disinformation in a rights respective manner guided by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

The use of independent and impartial fact checking can help companies identify disinformation, and take measures to strengthen their provision of independent and accurate content on their platforms.

The Finnish FactBar education project has brought together fact-checking experts, journalists, media specialists, and educators to create tools for media and information literacy. The project has sought to support teachers in dealing with social media issues in classrooms and empower students with critical thinking and information literacy skills to resist mis- and disinformation.


In December 2020, the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), which gathers together 32 governments committed to protect human rights online, launched a Joint Statement on Spread of Disinformation Online. The process was led by the Governments of Finland and the United Kingdom.

In the joint statement, the FOC expresses deep concern about the growing scope and sophistication of disinformation.  To address this phenomenon, the FOC calls upon governments to refrain from conducting and sponsoring disinformation campaigns, and urges also the private sector to take active steps to address the issue in a manner that respects human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Increasing transparency around measures taken to address the problems caused by algorithms in the context of disinformation is also important.

Finland as the Chair of the Coalition for 2021 is committed to disseminate the joint statement and continues to socialize its language to maximize impact.

Expert article 2947

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