We live in a world where millions of gigabytes of information are shared daily at the touch of a button. Apps, social media platforms, documents have incorporated in them, a form of instant sharing. While this is amazing, it has also brought about an enabling environment for fake news and misinformation. Social media platforms more so, have enabled the consumption of global scale misinformation.

Past studies have shown that false news spreads farther, faster, and more broadly than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it, the key factor being the ‘novelty’ of the information. Lies tend to be more novel. They are unique, surprising, interesting and unusual than facts, and are likely to be shared more than truth. These stories pull at the heartstrings and emotions of humans such that they are more memorable, and persuasive, hence likely to be shared. Basically, a lie is halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.

While the world has been dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic, another form of virus has been spreading, perhaps even faster that than COVID-19. The virus of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech. In response to this “infodemic,” governments around the world have swiftly implemented measures that disproportionately limit freedom of expression and opinion.

To support governments​ in fighting against the COVID-19 health crisis in a rights-respecting manner, Access Now has published Fighting misinformation and defending free expression during COVID-19: recommendations for states . It is a series of recommendations for protecting freedom of expression and opinion and the right to impart and receive information, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While misinformation, disinformation, and state-sponsored propaganda are not unique to COVID-19, in the context of an unprecedented health crisis, these phenomena have posed a serious risk to public health as well as a public action.

Access Now’s recommendations focuses on three areas where people around the world have faced harms and restrictions of their freedom of expression and other fundamental rights: They include issues such as:

  1. inadequate access to information
  2. disproportionate criminal measures to combat COVID-19 misinformation
  3. rise of hate speech against certain groups

In Kenya, for example, President Uhuru Kenyatta encouraged law enforcement agencies to arrest purveyors of fake news. The Cabinet Secretary of Health, Mutahi Kagwe also asked the police to arrest people who misuse social media. Bloggers Cyprian Nyakundi and Robert Alai have been arrested for allegedly publishing and spreading false and alarming information about COVID-19.

Access now reckons that inadequate access to information and broad criminalization of speech can make the ongoing health crisis and its impacts even worse. Further, during the COVID-19 pandemic, vulnerable groups have been targeted with hate speech leveraging disinformation and misinformation, significantly contributing to the rhetoric of social stigma.

They have therefore identified practical examples and promising practices for complying with international human rights standards to guide policymakers developing measures to address disinformation and misinformation during the COVID-19 crisis. Their recommendations can support governments’ ongoing efforts in formulating a common response in the face of this pandemic.

Read the full recommendations for states.