Access Now releases “Fighting misinformation and defending free expression during COVID-19: recommendations for states”

The world has been fighting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) since late 2019, and with it, the rapid growth of COVID-19-related 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 — a series of recommendations for protecting freedom of expression and opinion and the right to impart and receive information.

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 public action.

“Hasty and shortsighted solutions to disinformation and misinformation endanger human rights. There will be an aftermath to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the measures governments put in place right now will determine what that looks like, ” said Eliska Pirkova, Europe Policy Analyst at Access Now. “Under no circumstances should any government allow people’s fundamental rights to fall victim to this pandemic.”

Access Now’s Fighting misinformation and defending free expression during COVID-19: recommendations for states focuses on three areas where people around the world have faced harms and restrictions of their freedom of expression and other fundamental rights: 

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

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. 

“Information is crucial to power and control, and there is an inherent imbalance between individuals and the state or large private entities,” said Fanny Hidvégi, Europe Policy Manager at Access Now. “Openness about information, measures taken, and policies is not a hindrance to an effective COVID-19 response. On the contrary, it is the foundation of trust in public authorities which is essential in tackling the spread of the disease.”

We have identified practical examples and promising practices for complying with international human rights standards to guide policy makers developing measures to address disinformation and misinformation during the COVID-19 crisis. Access Now’s  recommendations can support governments in formulating a common response in the face of this pandemic, and we stand ready to further advise on implementation.