Recent national and global events have stressed the need for far more rigorous private and public examination of what is presented to us as “fact” and “truth”.
This has always been an expected function of media people whose professional scepticism ought, ideally, to routinely guide their conclusions for representation on the respective news and information platforms.
There are a few foundational guidelines that are useful. They include the need for multiple identified sources (both independent and openly biased), accountability and transparency in professional conduct, and a number of other well-established ethical guidelines.
In the private sphere, there are no such professional obligations, but there is a personal responsibility to ensure that information shared with others is as truthful as humanly possible.
Reckless online trolls, partisan surrogates, and sundry mischief-makers typically do not consider themselves bound either by the professional requirements of journalists or even a personal commitment to share stringently verified information.
Nowadays, with pervasive social media, the latter cohort of information-sharers vastly outnumbers those who consider it a duty to be truthful and accurate—to the extent that this is possible within an environment that is not often conducive to the free flow of reliable information. These are some of the “supply side” components of today’s information infrastructure. You should be able to identify a few other vital elements and even name some of the dominant culprits in your virtual spaces.
In recent years, though, the UN system has promoted a “demand side” approach to managing information flows. Such an approach was perhaps always there in the form of critical-thinking instruction and application—presented in different forms in the education system and resident among the skills-sets of numerous professions and vocations. You probably witness this at work when you go to the mechanic, visit the dentist, or talk to farmers about their crops. There is an ability to sift a variety of circumstances to diagnose and administer what is required to get their jobs done.
I think that the Media and Information Literacy (MIL) campaign of the UN now being adopted by governments and organisations around the world, provides us with an opportunity to achieve a human rights-compliant approach to misinformation and disinformation, and other mass communication dysfunctionalities.
The theory is that equipping consumers of media content with an ability to distinguish fact from fiction, and truth from lies, has the potential to greatly diminish the impact of the supply of unreliable news, information, and other content. This is an important issue to consider, especially if we concede that digital content, in particular, will continue to grow and escape even the finest mesh of regulation. Prohibition and regulation are of limited impact.
Through demand-oriented MIL, both direct and collateral social damage has the potential to be avoided, or at least minimised. The lower the receptivity to everything on offer, the greater the hindrance to uninterrupted supply.
This, however, does not provide a comprehensive shield. So, most defenders of rights agree that the protections currently provided to the subjects of media content, under common law and statute, should continue to apply. Even the founding principles of free speech, as captured by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, identifies duties and responsibilities and with them, widely accepted limitations.
There are lively debates regarding the application of such limitations. This resonates alongside what we have to consider on questions of media and information literacy. For example, there are important nuances to consider when it comes to things such as defamation, threats to national security, and incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. There is also the principle that addresses the infringement of other rights such as privacy, to cite one example.
This should clear the air among those under the misguided assumption that people who advocate for freedom of expression are somehow envisaging a situation of untrammelled liberty. In the Caribbean, progress with such an approach has been rather slow. The speed of change in the virtual world has accelerated greatly. The advent of generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers solutions but is also laden with serious challenges that test verification processes as nothing else has in human memory.
Whether we like it or not, AI is here to stay and, with it, a more urgent need to achieve much higher standards of media and information literacy—challenged as we already are in the area of functional, traditional literacy.
Regulation and prohibition won’t do the job. We have to hold this by the reins as societies and not evade responsibility for making the necessary change as a collaborative effort involving all concerned, including and especially our young people.