Human Rights and Fake News

Written by: Julia Russo, Political Economy Major at UC Berkeley

Business can affect the realization of human rights along every point of the value chain. A new class offered by the Center for Responsible Business at Berkeley Haas, Negotiating Human Rights Solutions in Business (UGBA 192N.4), addresses how the current issue of politically motivated disinformation (PMD, or “fake news”), or any false information that is intentionally disseminated for political purposes, impacts human rights. The class identifies two key human rights that are impacted: freedom of expression and the right to participate in government via free and fair elections. This past academic semester Marissa Saretsky, Associate Director of Article One, challenged her class to critically analyze the role tech platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter play in promoting and compromising human rights given the recent rise of PMD.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FDB515″ class=”” size=”13″]Marissa Saretsky challenged the class to analyze the role tech platforms play in compromising human rights given the recent rise of politically motivated disinformation.[/perfectpullquote]

It is no longer a secret that major online algorithmic and data privacy concerns , spurred by instances such as the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, have jeopardized the integrity of the democratic election system. Social media platforms are now increasingly being held accountable for the spread of PMD. In class, we learned that the creation of fake accounts and libelous articles are two key methods utilized to spearhead the same PMD campaigns that took place during the 2016 presidential election. PMD is particularly dangerous as it targets people based on data collected online and utilizes such information to sway public opinion and reinforce biases. It became apparent that the consequences of such PMD campaigns are direct infringements on the rights to participate in free and fair elections, while responses to curtail it can inadvertently jeopardize freedom of expression.

Berkeley Haas instructor Marissa Saretsky began the class by introducing existing frameworks which aim to address the role of business in protecting human rights. This primarily included the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, or the UNGPs. The UNGPs have three pillars, which include 1. the state’s duty to protect human rights and 2. businesses’ duty to respect human rights, while 3. providing access to effective remedy. This foundational background provided a segue for the major highlight of the course, the Multi-Stakeholder Initiative (MSI) Exercise. The goal of an MSI is to work collaboratively with different stakeholders to find collective solutions. This typically includes a mix of business, civil society organizations, and governments, but may also include academic institutions, think tanks, etc. MSIs are often used when there is a governance gap to resolve business and human rights issues. By the end of a negotiation process, the initiative is supposed to represent the interests of and be followed closely by all participating members.

The MSI Exercise broke the class into four different teams, representing civil society, the United States Government, Twitter, and Google, and finally Facebook. Each team was given the opportunity to ask questions of a representative from each sector, also known as our “lifelines.” Lifelines included current and former government officials, a member of Human Rights Watch, and a senior Facebook employee, among others. At the commencement of the MSI Exercise, the teams came together in order to give suggestions for an initiative that would address each sector’s responsibility in addressing PMD. At the conclusion of the MSI, the group voted unanimously on the idea of creating a mechanism which enabled effective and efficient collaboration in the event that a party becomes aware of a PMD campaign. Another result of the MSI was an overwhelming agreement among sectors to develop media literacy campaigns for the public. This would entail empowering the public to recognize and report disingenuous sources before interacting with them.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FDB515″ class=”” size=”13″]Negotiating Human Rights Solutions in Business provides both a theoretical and practical approach to consider the human rights implications associated with big data and artificial intelligence[/perfectpullquote]

An important aspect of MSIs is that they are voluntary and therefore do not have the force of law behind them. In this way, it is important to put accountability mechanisms in place to ensure compliance of all members. In our MSI Exercise, we discussed a few different measures including warnings, fines, and ultimately expulsion from the initiative if a party is not cooperative. We found this aspect of the MSI particularly challenging given that different sectors will experience punitive measures in different ways. For example, during our negotiations, we considered that fines wouldn’t have as big of an impact on companies as they would on civil society given the resource constraints of the latter. On the other hand, companies are extremely concerned with their public image, so a warning or removal from the initiative might create more of an incentive for participation.

Living in an era saturated with technological advancement, it is important to take a step back and recognize all of the implications, including the less considered but very important human rights implications, associated with big data and artificial intelligence. Negotiating Human Rights Solutions in Business provides both a theoretical and practical approach to doing just that: identifying challenges and solutions to human rights violations in business. Taking this class presented an incredible opportunity to delve beyond traditional topics associated with business. I hope that it is indicative of more socially responsible business classes to come, and a commitment by Haas to champion the protection of human rights within business.


Julia RussoJulia Russo
Political Economy, UC Berkeley

Julia Russo is an incoming senior of Political Economy at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a student employee of the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Haas, and an Undergraduate Research Assistant in the Department of Economics. She has a passion for developing collaborative, multi-sector solutions to corporate supply chain transparency, human rights violations, and sustainability.

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