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Safeguarding human rights in the Age of Disinformation — a generational approach

21 Nov 2023

By Eileen Carter

As a national human rights institution (NHRI), the commitment of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to upholding human rights is unwavering. However, the landscape in which we advocate for these rights is evolving at an unprecedented pace, a phenomenon which was highlighted during the recent EU Disinfolab Conference in Krakow, Poland.

In this age of disinformation, where misinformation and fake news can spread like wildfire, our role as defenders of human rights has never been more critical. There is a need to apply a generational human rights approach to tackle the intersection of disinformation and the rise of generative AI.

The adoption of a generational human rights approach to combat disinformation and AI-driven threats is not merely a matter of choice; it is a pressing necessity, especially with the numerous countries, including South Africa, scheduled to hold elections in 2024. Disinformation has a knack for flourishing during electoral periods, as malign actors exploit the charged atmosphere to sow confusion and manipulate outcomes.

Disinformation (the deliberate spread of false or misleading information) poses a multifaceted threat to human rights. It undermines trust in institutions, fuels polarisation and distorts public discourse. When malicious actors exploit disinformation to manipulate public opinion, the foundations of democracy are at risk. The proliferation of generative AI, which can fabricate convincing text, audio and visual content, exacerbates these challenges.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Fake news — The fight for South Africa’s future in the face of mounting disinformation

The protection of human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and access to accurate information, remains key in the journey towards rights protection as well as realisation. However, to effectively combat disinformation and AI-driven threats, a possible comprehensive strategy that revolves around a generational approach is required.
The generational human rights approach

A generational approach to human rights focuses not only on the immediate protection of rights but also on their sustainability and adaptability for future generations. It recognises that the challenges we face today will have lasting consequences for the rights of those who come after us. By applying this approach, we aim to provide a measurable foundation before elections, when disinformation tends to peak, and prepare for the ethical challenges posed by generative AI.
Ensuring access to accurate information

As an NHRI, one of our primary goals is to ensure that citizens have access to accurate and unbiased information. In an era of disinformation, this means promoting media literacy and critical thinking. There is a critical need for support for educational initiatives that empower individuals to discern credible sources from falsehoods, fostering an environment where truth prevails over deception.
Fostering digital literacy

The rise of generative AI technologies brings forth content so lifelike that distinguishing it from reality becomes a significant challenge. To address this growing threat, it is essential to implement digital literacy programs designed to educate the public about both the capabilities and constraints of AI-generated content. Such initiatives empower individuals to discern manipulated media and make well-informed choices.
Promoting ethical AI development

Generative AI technology holds tremendous potential, yet it brings with it a set of ethical concerns. To tackle these issues, it is imperative to guarantee that AI systems are developed and implemented in alignment with human rights principles. This necessitates placing transparency, accountability and fairness as fundamental tenets of AI systems to prevent worsening challenges related to disinformation.
Collaboration and accountability

Disinformation is a global issue that transcends borders. NHRI collaboration on the international stage is crucial to sharing best practices and developing coordinated responses. Furthermore, governments, tech companies and civil society organisations must be held accountable for their roles in combating disinformation and promoting human rights.

As society navigates the intersection between disinformation and generative AI, there is a need to underscore our core mission: the protection and promotion of human rights. By applying a generational human rights approach, we lay a measurable foundation to safeguard these rights before elections and in the face of evolving technology.

The challenges are immense, but so is our commitment. By centring human rights in the discourse on disinformation and generative AI, a future where truth prevails, democracy thrives and the rights of all generations are preserved, will be safeguarded. DM

Dr Eileen I Carter is an accomplished legal professional, serving as the provincial manager of the South African Human Rights Commission in the Eastern Cape. As an admitted attorney and accredited mediator, she has dedicated her career to promoting access to justice for marginalised communities. She has showcased her expertise on local, regional and international platforms, using her numerous academic, professional and leadership accolades to address issues relating to the rights of vulnerable groups. Currently, she is pursuing studies on the intersection between human rights and developing technologies.

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The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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