Illustration by Oscar Bray.

Global Press Freedom is Under Threat. It Is Our Responsibility to Consume Media Responsibly.

We have entered a pivotal decade for global press freedom. The pandemic has exacerbated digital underregulation through the spread of misinformation, and it’s important for us to reflect on why we should demand more digital media transparency.

Apr 4, 2021

We have entered a pivotal decade for global press freedom. The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2020 World Press Freedom Index indicates that the Covid-19 pandemic has magnified the suppression of the distribution of free, trustworthy news worldwide. In the 2010s, the index’s global indicator — or total percentage of global media freedom — has gone down by 12 percent, making the state of international media distribution crucial to critically assess. One particularly glaring issue RSF highlighted is a global technological crisis threatening the future of the journalism industry. We need to demand more transparent technological spaces, or else journalistic freedom will not be the only thing at stake — everyone’s right to easily access reliable information will be too.
But, what is this technological crisis? RSF defines it as “[t]he absence of appropriate regulation in the era of digitalized and globalized communication… [that has] created information chaos.” The world’s reliance on digital platforms as a news source is a relatively recent phenomenon that has been overtaxed during the Covid-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that we are living through an infodemic — an information overload susceptible to an abundance of misinformation and disinformation in the face of the global public health crisis. If we remain on this path, citizens of all nations will be left vulnerable to potential governmental and economic exploitation that strips individual right to free and accurate information.
This infodemic is exacerbated by the underregulation of digital media platforms, where an increasing number of people are getting their news from. For example, around 86 percent of U.S. Americans now get their news digitally according to a Pew Research Center study. Ultimately, this infodemic is a consequence of the broader technological crisis built around information chaos. Journalistic integrity is at war with propaganda, marketing and hoaxes, which threaten the individual’s ability to effectively consume information.
One blatant example of the rampant spread of media misinformation during the pandemic has been the abuse of Covid-19 “remedies.” For instance, the politicization of the anti-malaria drug chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 remedy on digital platforms early in the pandemic was widespread, despite being unproven by medical sources. Trump infamously lauded the drug on his social media platforms, reportedly after conversations with billionaire and Oracle chairman Larry Ellison only a few months before the U.S. elections.
“HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,” Trump tweeted. "What do you have to lose?" he later stated. "Take it."
What did we have to lose? The FDA announced that the drug led to no improvement in Covid patients while leading to serious side effects in some, including abnormal heart rhythms.
Misinformation is dangerous. Its rampant spread in online media sources in “the land of the free” is only the tip of the iceberg, and is a global phenomenon. In April 2020 alone, Facebook remarked that it placed warning labels on “50 million pieces of content related to COVID-19.” However, misinformation continues to be underregulated on media platforms as a whole. The day prior to Facebook’s labeling campaign, 41 percent of Covid-19 misinformation identified by Avaaz — an online activist network — on Facebook was not taken down.
The exploitation of technological space is more than just a product of unreliable endorsements from influential figures. At the beginning of 2020, the Chinese government was accused of censoring any negative early information about the emerging Covid-19 pandemic to make the virus appear less severe and employing individuals to work part time in writing controlled comments online to help avoid mass panic. State sponsored internet armies — where individuals are paid by the state to praise and endorse posts that propagate certain political narratives online — during the pandemic have also been found in other countries like the Philippines and India.
The infodemic is only one example of what can happen if misinformation goes under-addressed. Yet, it seems like an abstract and unattainable goal to expect a completely ethical, free digital space that allows unbiased journalism to thrive. How do we come to terms with the lack of consistent, widespread regulation? And how do we ensure that regulation itself does not get corrupted?
The answer is not as simple as demanding the adoption of stricter online misinformation regulation. The structural issues we face go deeper than this because we need to question who is responsible for fixing regulation issues and by what means. Are tech companies responsible, or governments? Government regulation comes with its own caveats — how do we ensure that only misinformation is being targeted, and not information that goes against the state? States like Belarus and Kenya passed laws that enable the government to imprison people spreading “false information” online, which some caution leaves independent journalists vulnerable. The call for stricter online regulation can be abused too, so how do we navigate between suppression of misinformation and of free speech?
The solution needs to start with us — the average internet consumer — being aware of what misinformation is. We are not responsible for regulation failures of digital platforms, but change will not take place without people understanding what needs to be changed so that we can avoid being exploited by unethical regulation campaigns. Being oblivious can easily result in people only consuming the information that those in power want them to, something that is already a reality in education systems and state media worldwide. The world’s globality would be a reality only in name — people would still be restricted within the information they receive and subsequently, so would their perceptions of the world — such as how the continued demonization of Muslims in post 9/11 western media represses the possibility of them being accurately represented. In turn, people would remain divided in a supposedly globalized world.
We can start diversifying our own digital news acquisition by cross-checking facts we acquire online, verifying our sources and seeking both local and national news platforms. The Verge provides good tips for investigating media misinformation, such as: being on guard when an article elicits a strong emotional response or makes drastic claims, looking into where articles get their quotations and sources, considering the context and timeframe that accompanies a story, and understanding how some parts of a generally accurate article could be incorrect.
To move beyond the individual level, however, we should also be vocalizing when sources don’t align with facts when presenting themselves as such. It is easy to wonder if we even have the power to facilitate change in such a broad space, but normalizing awareness campaigns is a way to pressure big tech into fixing glaring regulation issues. At the end of the day, we need to be able to trust our news and ask ourselves why we need free media in our new, digital news space.
Sidra Dahhan is Columns Editor. Email her at
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