No silver bullet: Using data to develop context-sensitiv solutions to disinformation

State Secretary Marte Ziolkowski's remarks at a round table (virtually) about information and disinformation by the UNDP Oslo Governance Centre.

Let me first say that I am happy to meet you all digitally. Thank you for inviting me to speak at this round table today, and on something that is of high relevance for how the world is being shaped and developed – the issue of information and disinformation.

We are in the middle of a pandemic. But we are also are in the middle of an infodemic.

The UN Secretary-General has pointed out that this infodemic can be as dangerous to human health and security as the pandemic itself.

The pandemic has provided numerous reminders of the gravity of the problem and of the impact caused by misinformation, disinformation and digital hoaxes, which can create confusion and distrust.

We also see how the infodemic divides and polarises communities and increases the risk of conflict, violence and human rights violations.

False information inflicts more harm in contexts with pre-existing low trust in institutions and governments. 

The potential combination of low levels of trust in governments and low levels of reliability of news is even more dangerous – especially in times where we depend on trust in governments and information for ensuring general compliance with containment policies. In times such as today.

Moreover, disinformation related to constitutional processes, like in Chile, is a potential danger to democracy.

Informed citizens are the basis of any functioning democracy. Access to information is a precondition for democratic development, just as it is for maintaining trust between citizens and those in power in any democratic state. 

It is also key to realising other human rights. Access to reliable information allows people to make informed decisions over their own lives and it enables people to hold the authorities accountable. It also promotes participation in public debates.

Access to information is also our best tool to fight corruption and disclose wrongdoings, improving transparency. And here investigative journalism plays a key role.

Social media are not a replacement for quality journalism.

We need data, facts and reliable information as an important foundation in our society.

Access to reliable information is one of the main priorities in Norway’s strategy on promoting freedom of expression and independent media in our foreign and development policy. We are now planning to renew our strategy. Working with our partners to ensure access to reliable information will remain a priority.

For without freedom of expression, there is no real democracy. Freedom of expression is the foundation on which all other democratic freedoms rest.

It is a prerequisite for uncovering human rights violations and for ensuring that other human rights are being fulfilled, like the right to health, food, education.

Access to information is also about inclusion and affordable connectivity. Today, only 53% of the world’s population has Internet access. Millions of people lack access to relevant information, including to reliable health information in crises.

And even where Internet infrastructure is available, people - particularly journalists, media workers and human rights defenders - are often faced with Internet shutdowns and filtering of content.

Let me applaud the timeliness of the initiative managed by Oslo Governance Centre. We need data and facts to counter propaganda.

As the headline of this roundtable points out: There is no silver bullet. There is no silver bullet that can ensure access to reliable information for all people. The issue needs to be addressed at many levels and across several sectors simultaneously. Today, we will get more insight on the findings from Lebanon and Chile.

Regarding the Lebanon case, which focused on the perceptions and behavior of Lebanese citizens towards Covid-19, I noted that one of the results from the survey was the lack of trust in the Lebanese Government as one of the main factors shaping the perceptions and behaviors of survey participants. It will be interesting to hear more about this and other results in the presentation, to see whether some of these findings are familiar – and apply to other contexts than Lebanon.

The Chilean case concentrated on information pollution by assessing the information landscape surrounding the constitutional process. It is noteworthy not only that traditional communications media have lost trust and legitimacy, compared with alternative media, but also that information pollution in social media was relatively low in advance of the referendum 25 October. I look forward to hearing more about this later on this evening.

To conclude: We must remain vigilant. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that misinformation and disinformation often travels faster than facts.

It is time to learn the lessons and to improve our digital environment, so our democracies can also flourish online.

We support journalism of public interest in crisis. Because, in times of crisis and conflict, trustworthy information is often the first victim. Multilateral cooperation with a human rights based approach is crucial to counter the infodemic.

The UN Secretary General has encouraged all of us to become “information volunteers”, to seek and share verified, scientific, evidence-based information and facts, so we can also contribute as individuals.

I look forward to listening to you all and to the discussions ahead.

Thank you.