While the world grapples with a global pandemic, an equally dangerous disease in the form of an ‘infodemic’ has been quietly unfolding at an accelerated speed across the globe. The World Health Organisation defines an ‘infodemic’ as ‘excessive amount of information about a problem, which makes it difficult to identify a solution’.
Infodemics can be spread in the form of disinformation, misinformation and rumours. Their symptoms can include: confusion and distrust among people. Their carriers vary: from harmless citizens who repost false information on Twitter, to bots or online trolls that purposely disseminate specific information with the sole purpose of pushing forward a certain agenda.
Libya is an example of a country that is a fertile ground for infodemics. Its turbulent past, coupled with lack of stable governance, unclear implementation of media laws and strategic geographical location between Europe, Africa and the Gulf region; has made it vulnerable to intricate disinformation campaigns.
At this stage, it is important to highlight the distinction between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is ‘false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead’. Disinformation is ‘deliberately misleading or biased information’. An example of misinformation is spreading the false news that if you drink olive oil every day you will be susceptible to catching the coronavirus. Whereas, disinformation would be starting a rumour that a leader of a political faction has paid coronavirus infected mercenaries to attack a certain tribe.
The influence of disinformation on the Libyan civil war will most likely be felt in the years to come. To date, it has been found that ‘both sides of the Libya conflict have effectively weaponized social media to further their narrative of choice’. In the past, disinformation has been spread in Libya by; the impersonation of public figures or groups online, circulation of disturbing old or manipulated footage with the claim that the events are recent, as well as the promotion of fabricated stories in the form of press reports. In fact, it is not uncommon, for fake Libya related news to go viral and leak into international press. The long term impact of such disinformation campaigns is an eroded democratic political process and an unstable economic investment environment.
Obviously, disinformation is not a Libya-centric problem. Just like the coronavirus, disinformation is an international problem that is capable of affecting anyone in the world. According to research carried out by Oxford University, it is estimated that a total of 70 countries have experienced disinformation campaigns in the year 2019. Twitter for example, recently announced that it had suspended tens of thousands of accounts that were part of a ‘manipulative’ disinformation campaign linked to the Chinese government. Nevertheless, disinformation is a particularly sensitive subject in relation to Libya. This is because the State of Libya is currently undergoing a significant transitory phase, where State institutions are being rebuilt and the traditional relationship between citizens and the State is being redefined. As a result, within the context of Libya, disinformation campaigns are especially dangerous because they are designed to exploit the emotions and existing biases of civilians, with the deadly consequences of exacerbating political rivalry and sectarian divisions.
As an inherently international problem, disinformation campaigns require an international solution and should be dealt with by international law. There is currently no international law which addresses disinformation campaigns or even, online harassment. The European Union is the only regional body to date that has outlined an action plan to fight disinformation. Victims of disinformation campaigns, including governments, are often forced to rely on local laws e.g. criminal or libel laws and sometimes even blanket internet shut downs. Such action, if not regulated on an international level, can have serious repercussions on freedom of speech and privacy rights. International human rights law should therefore be at the heart of any discussion relevant to disinformation; not because it imposes legal obligations on digital platforms, but because it is a framework established to safe guard individuals from the power of authority.
Libyan public figures and their families are often victims of disinformation campaigns. With little recourse available for them under local Libyan laws, many are forced to disappear from the Libyan political scene as a whole, or seek the advice of international law firms. However, it is not uncommon for polar sides to fact-check each other and point out when fake news has been spread about them online.
The tools which are generally available for victims of disinformation campaigns and online harassment include commencing defamation or breach of privacy proceedings in the English civil courts. If an English media outlet is involved, it could also be potentially possible to file a complaint to the Independent Press Standard Organisation (IPSO), which is the largest independent press regulator in the United Kingdom. Individuals who are consistently targeted by online trolls could also obtain a Norwich Pharmacal Order to help and uncover the identity of the trolls. Conversely, it may also be possible to submit takedown requests to popular search engines like Google or Bing and remove offending material, as was the case in the landmark English court judgements: NT1 & NT2 v Google LLC. Instructing international lawyers and commencing legal proceedings in a foreign jurisdiction is not always a possible option for victims of disinformation campaigns given the expenses involved; especially at a time where 1 Libyan dinar is worth approximately £7 GBP.
Another viable option for victims of disinformation campaigns and online harassment could include directly approaching or lobbying tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter to play a more active role in regulating the information spread on their platforms. There is no doubt that tech companies have been able to massively benefit from the spread of fake news on their platforms, given the fact that their main source of revenue is advertisement and access to users personal details. Facebook for example, has recently announced that it works with third party fact checkers, to help identify and review false news. However, the popular site makes it clear that it’s fact checking services do not generally apply to politicians.
In the Libya context, this can be problematic, given the politicised nature of the conflict. Twitter on the other hand, has been more open to fact checking news on its platform. The company introduced a new policy in May, where it announced that it will be introducing warnings to tweets that contain synthetic or manipulated media as well as, any harmful or misleading information. Donald Trump’s Twitter account has been one of the accounts that have been affected by this policy. Given the popularity of Twitter among self-acclaimed Libya “experts”, the implementation of this policy would be a welcome move in limiting the spread of disinformation in Libya.
Finally, as multinational companies, tech companies should heed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the potential impact that their action (or inaction in this case) could have on their business. After all, as multinational companies, tech companies have a corporate responsibility to respect human rights. While still yet to be tested; The Hague Rules on Business and Human Rights Arbitration, which was launched in The Hague Palace in the Netherlands in December 2019, could provide for a fruitful outlet for the administration of arbitrations concerning disputes related to the impact of business activities on human rights in Libya. It should be noted that even though the State of Libya has been embroiled in conflict for the past decade, all parties involved should not underestimate the fact that their online activities could have significant legal consequences.
There is no doubt that social media has played a crucial role in enabling different parties to voice their concerns on Libya; as the popular African proverb goes “until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. Nevertheless, disinformation and the malicious spread of fake news remain a serious threat to the stability and democratic process of the country. International and local parties involved in the peace process in Libya should heed the legal consequences of their actions online and should work together to enforce appropriate mechanisms to deal with malicious disinformation campaigns which are harmful to everyone involved.
Noura Abughris is a solicitor at Carter-Ruck