Finding the Balance: Counteracting Disinformation without Restricting Free Speech

A man works at his desk in front of monitors during a demonstration in the war room, where Facebook monitors election related content on the platform.


A man works at his desk in front of monitors during a demonstration in the war room, where Facebook monitors election related content on the platform, in Menlo Park, Calif. © AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Disinformation poses long-term electoral integrity challenges for democracies and can threaten their very foundation. But can efforts to counteract disinformation reduce free speech and limit civil society space? During the 15th session of the Democratic Resilience in Europe during a Pandemic discussion series organized by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), an esteemed panel of experts discussed how disinformation could be countered without jeopardizing the freedoms on which democracy depends.

The event held on Nov. 30 gathered 113 participants from 46 countries, featuring simultaneous interpretation into Albanian, Armenian, Georgian, Macedonian, Russian, South Slavic language and Ukrainian. The discussion was facilitated by IFES Senior Political Finance Adviser and Regional Europe Office Director Magnus Öhman.

IFES Global Social Media and Disinformation Specialist Lisa Reppell explained that disinformation is often used as a campaign tactic with complete impunity. Most legal frameworks lack explicit guidance for behaviors that are permissible online. This has created a race to the bottom as political actors increasingly perceive behaving deceptively online as a way to stay competitive. Reppell noted media channels that attempt to ban or sanction disinformation are at significant risk for selective enforcement that undercuts political competition and freedom of expression. She stated that whole-of-society responses are needed to prevent this.

Matej Cibik, a research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy for the Czech Academy of Sciences, discussed how disinformation and conspiracy theories are impossible to define using epistemic criteria. Rather, Cibik noted, information should be evaluated on its ethical or political implications. Cibik argued that critical thinking needs to be complemented by free and equal citizenship, in order to bring us out of the “post-fact” society.

Laura Thornton, the director and a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, dismissed the idea that online spaces are neutral public squares and a free marketplace of ideas, given that the platforms are driven by profits. Social media ad revenue in 2020 alone was $41.5 billion. Thornton argued that algorithms drive the profits for platforms, and that since the profits lie in divisive, hateful and untrue content, online speech is not an equal sounding board of ideas. Thornton also emphasized how gendered disinformation has undermined the political participation of women in public and social life.

Marcin Walecki, a visiting fellow at St. Antony's College in Oxford and the former head of the Democratization Department at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE), spoke about the different angles various European organizations, such as the European Union (EU) and the OSCE, are approaching the issue of disinformation. Although some argue that the EU policy on disinformation lacks clarity, the EU has made some progress by creating instruments like the Code of Practice on Disinformation, the Action Plan Against Disinformation and the Rapid Alert System. Walecki agreed that while disinformation is not a new phenomenon, it has changed in recent years in the sheer scale and speed with which false or misleading content can reach its audiences and its impact on democratic institutions like in Poland and Hungary. He also shared his solution for disinformation based on five pillars, which includes ideas like promoting media pluralism and diversity of media content.

Published on January 12, 2022.


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