Working Group on Freedom of Expression and Addressing Disinformation

How can we work together to defend reliable, high-quality information while advancing freedom of expression?

Co-Chaired by Ms. Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, and Dr. Hessa Al-Jaber, Chairperson of Es’hailSat, the Working Group on Freedom of Expression and Addressing Disinformation’s 2020 report examined the diverse responses to disinformation globally and developed frameworks to help understand and assess these responses through a freedom of expression lens. Through the identification and analysis of multiple methods of promoting high-quality information, the Working Group produced a toolkit that includes a wide range of responses to addressing disinformation, from policy and legislative measures to technological efforts and media and education literacy initiatives. 

Setting the Stage

Defining Disinformation

There are diverse definitions applied to false and misleading information, but for the purposes of this Working Group, the term disinformation is used to broadly refer to content that is false and has potentially damaging impacts – for example, on the health and safety of individuals and the functionality of democracy.

Protecting Freedom of Expression

Freedom of expression rights, including press freedom and the right to access information, are upheld in tandem with privacy rights, which are also enshrined in international human rights law. So, where relevant, the Working Group’s outcome report touches on online privacy and dignity issues. Further, it situates the problem of disinformation in the context of the enabling role of the internet – especially the social web – in both improving access to information, and as a disinformation vector. It discusses in detail the potential for responses to disinformation to curb freedom of expression and suggests ways to avoid such impacts.

The Way Forward

Response Methods and Recommendations

A Call to Action

The Working Group’s outcome report: Balancing Act: Countering Digital Disinformation While Respecting Freedom of Expression affirms that freedom of expression, access to information and critical, independent journalism – supported by open and affordable internet access – are not only fundamental human rights but should be treasured as essential tools in the arsenal to combat disinformation – whether connected to a pandemic, elections, climate change or social issues. 

This timely study serves as a call to all stakeholders to uphold these international norms which, along with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, are under significant threat from disinformation.

The Report encourages the broadband community and donors to invest further in independent fact-checking, critical professional journalism, media development and Media and Information Literacy (MIL), especially through educational interventions targeting children, young people, older citizens, and vulnerable groups. It also calls for actors to promote privacy-preserving, equitable access to key data from internet communications companies, to enable independent analysis into the incidence, spread and impact of online disinformation on citizens around the word, and especially in the context of elections, public health, and natural disasters.

Monitoring and Evaluations

For those seeking to intervene against disinformation using the below responses, this study urges that each actor include systematic monitoring and evaluations within their response activities. These should cover effectiveness, as well as impacts on the right to freedom of expression and access to information, including on the right to privacy.

Recommendations: Typology of 11 Responses for Intervening Against Disinformation

The report produced a novel typology of 11 responses for intervening against disinformation, making holistic sense of the disinformation crisis on an international scale, including during COVID-19.

Recommendations for Disinformation Responses Graphic

International and Regional Institutions, Governments, Internet Communications Companies, Foundations and New Organizations: 

  • Make available resources for independent fact checking, including facilitating the fact-checking of political content and political advertising
  • Support the principle of access to information, especially in regard to both authorities and internet communications companies, as relevant to fact-checking, in order to increase transparency and enable fact-checking organizations themselves to work more accurately and transparently
  • Promote fact-checking results as trustworthy sources of information, useful for citizenship, for the news media, and for Media and Information Literacy interventions
  • Promote trans-disciplinary research into fact-checking responses to disinformation
  • Help to develop collaborative fact-checking operations worldwide to aid access to accurate and reliable information globally, especially in partnership with news organizations
  • Reinforce fact-checking capacity within news organizations through specialist training and editorial projects to support accountability reporting applied to corporate, government, and political actors and actions
  • ‘Verify the verifiers’ and develop international standards and an accountability approach to enable transparent, and objective appointment and assessment procedures for the people and organizations (including the internet communications companies that facilitate and fund fact-checking on their sites) involved in fact checking, and evaluate their performance over time

All Stakeholders:

  • Recognize the need to invest in critical, independent investigative journalism as a defensive measure against disinformation, particularly as COVID-19 financial pressures deliver death blows to news outlets around the world and threaten costly investigative journalism initiatives

Internet Communications Companies:

  • Provide broader and better access to their datasets to independent researchers studying disinformation, including those who do not receive significant research funding from these companies, in the interests of knowledge sharing to combat disinformation
  • Increase investment in interdisciplinary and collaborative investigations, fostering cooperation between academic researchers, commercial data scientists, NGOs and news organizations.
  • Fund quick-turnaround disinformation investigations during emergency situations such as the COVID-19 crisis

Individual States:

  • Review and adapt responses to disinformation with a view to conformity with international human rights standards (notably freedom of expression, including access to information, and privacy rights), and make provision for monitoring and evaluation
  • Develop mechanisms for independent oversight and evaluation of the efficacy of relevant legislation, policy and regulation
  • Develop mechanisms for independent oversight and evaluation of internet communication companies’ practices in fulfilling legal mandates in tackling disinformation
  • Avoid criminalizing disinformation to ensure that legitimate journalism and other public interest information are not caught in the nets of ‘fake news’ laws
  • Avoid internet shutdowns and social media restrictions as mechanisms to tackle disinformation
  • Ensure that any legislation responding to disinformation crises, like the COVID-19 disinfodemic, is necessary, proportionate, and time-limited
  • Support investment in strengthening independent media, including community and public service media, in the context of the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis threatening journalistic sustainability around the world

Individual States:

  • Engage more closely with civil society organizations, news organizations, and academic experts to aid development of well-informed campaigns responding to different types of disinformation
  • Consider campaigns designed to raise awareness of the value of critical, independent journalism and journalists in protecting societies from disinformation
  • Invest in research that measures the efficacy of counter-disinformation campaigns
  • Engage more closely with civil society organizations, news organizations, and academic experts to aid development of well-informed campaigns responding to different types of disinformation
  • Consider campaigns designed to raise awareness of the value of critical, independent journalism and journalists in protecting societies from disinformation.
  • Invest in research that measures the efficacy of counter-disinformation campaigns


  • Conduct audience research to test responses to a variety of national and intergovernmental campaign types (e.g. online/offline, interactive, audio-visual) among different groups (e.g. children and young people, older citizens, socio-economically diverse communities, those with diverse political beliefs, those who are identified as susceptible to being influenced by and/or sharing disinformation)

Internet Communications Companies:

  • Expand financial support for, and heighten the visibility of, intergovernmental anti-disinformation campaigns beyond crises like the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Engage more closely with civil society organizations, news organizations, and academic experts to aid development of well-informed campaigns responding to different types of disinformation
  • Consider campaigns designed to raise awareness of the value of critical, independent journalism and journalists in protecting societies from disinformation
  • Invest in research that measures the efficacy of counter-disinformation campaigns

Governments and International Organizations:

  • Invest in monitoring, measuring and assessing the effectiveness of electoral responses to disinformation
  • Work with internet communications companies to ensure the responses that they initiate are appropriately transparent and measurable, as well as implemented on a truly global scale
  • Encourage internet communications companies to apply the same swift and decisive responses to electoral disinformation as they have to disinformation related to COVID-19
  • Coordinate an initiative to support privacy-preserving, equitable access to key data from internet communications companies, in order to enable independent research on a geographically representative scale into the incidence, spread, and impact of online disinformation on citizens during elections
  • Facilitate and encourage global multistakeholder cooperation and exchange of best practice across continents and States, towards effective implementation of holistic measures for tackling online disinformation during elections

Internet Communications Companies:

  • Recognize the significant damage potentially caused by political disinformation, specifically in the run-up to elections (including disinformation in online advertising) and engage in a multi-stakeholder dialogue on the policies and methods they adopt specifically during election periods
      • These could include temporary restrictions on pre-election political advertising; additional transparency information for political adverts placed during election periods; election-specific policies for promoting reliable information sources; and deployment of additional content moderation and fact-checking resources
  • To deal with cross-platform electoral disinformation, collaborate on the setting of broad industry-wide norms for dealing with electoral disinformation that support democracy and aid self-regulation
  • Collaborate on improving their ability to detect and curtail election disinformation, as cross-platform methods of manipulation are often practiced during elections
  • Apply the lessons learned from responding with urgency to the COVID-19 ‘disinfodemic’ and apply those lessons to the management of political and electoral disinformation
  • Contribute significantly towards funds for fully independent research into manifestations and impact of election disinformation, as well as independent evaluation of the effectiveness of the companies’ own disinformation responses, with such initiatives to be managed by arms-length independent funding boards
  • Work together, and under the guidance of the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Opinion and Freedom of Expression, along with other independent international experts, to develop a consistent policy approach for dealing with disinformation agents who hold powerful political office while using their sites

Electoral Regulatory Bodies and National Authorities:

  • Strengthen legislation that helps protect citizens against electoral disinformation (e.g. data protection, freedom of expression, electoral advertising transparency)
  • Improve transparency of all election advertising by political parties and candidates through requiring comprehensive and openly available advertising databases and disclosure of spending by political parties and support groups
  • Establish effective cooperation with internet communication companies on monitoring and addressing threats to election integrity. z Seek to establish and promote multi-stakeholder responses including especially civil society
  • Help educate and empower citizens to detect and report disinformation during elections
  • Improve citizens’ knowledge and engagement with electoral processes through civics education and voter literacy initiatives
  • Co-operate with news organizations and specialist researchers in surfacing disinformation and probing disinformation networks

Media and Independent Fact-Checking Organizations: 

  • Consider expanding fact-checking during elections to live broadcasts and webcasts, to enable greater reach and impact.
  • Carry out research into assessing the efficacy of the different approaches to debunking and containment of disinformation during elections, including responses implemented by regulatory bodies and the internet communication companies

Individual States:

  • Promote the need for independent multi-stakeholder ‘social media councils’, similar to press councils in the newspaper sector, along with regulations that require transparency in how internet communications companies interpret and implement their standards, allow for industry-wide complaints and mandate inter-company cooperation to provide remedies (UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, 2018b, pars 58, 59, 63, 72) 250

International Organizations:

  • Encourage internet communications companies to ensure the curatorial responses that they initiate are appropriately transparent and measurable, support human rights, and are implemented equitably (e.g. avoiding exceptions being granted to powerful political figures) on a truly global scale

Internet Communication Companies:

  • Could provide detailed and frequent public transparency reports, including specific information on the viewing and spread of disinformation, suspension of accounts spreading disinformation, removals and other steps against disinformation, including demonetization, as these responses can have significant human rights and freedom of expression implications
  • Establish robust third party/external review mechanisms for content moderation and ensure the ability to appeal decisions, including machine-driven ones. This includes the need to review decisions not to remove content, as well as decisions to delete it
  • Ensure that curatorial responses encourage users to access journalism from independent and professional news organizations or others publishing critical, evidence based public interest information (e.g. independent researchers and bona fide civil society organizations)
  • Increase their efforts against orchestrated disinformation-laced attacks on journalists by excluding users who are part of such assaults on press freedom and act as obstacles to efforts to counter disinformation
  • Take steps to ensure appropriate support for content moderators, including training, commensurate wages for work done, and provision for psychological health

The Media Sector:

  • Highlight counter-disinformation content (e.g. content that helps educate audiences about the risks of disinformation, helps equip them to resist and counter it where they ind it, and gives prominent exposure to important debunks such as COVID-19 mythbusting)
  • Experiment with creative means of audience curation and engagement, especially within closed apps where disinformation flourishes
  • Advocate for curatorial disinformation interventions by internet communications companies and relevant governance bodies to take account of international human rights frameworks, and for any restrictions imposed in emergency situations (e.g. COVID-19) to meet the conditions of international standards on the limitation of rights
  • Critically monitor the curatorial efforts of the internet communications companies to aid transparency and accountability

International Organizations and States:

  • Invest in monitoring, measuring and assessing the impacts of technical responses to disinformation against human rights frameworks
  • Support the development of independent initiatives that embed impact measurement and evaluation to increase knowledge about the efficacy of technical responses, ensuring that transparency and verifiable criteria are involved
  • Work with internet communications companies to ensure the responses that they initiate are appropriately transparent and measurable, as well as implemented on a truly global scale
  • Encourage the companies to co-operate transparently across basic norms, and produce comparable data that can be used to develop an overview of the problem across different services and related policy frameworks
  • Support initiatives towards ensuring privacy-preserving, and equitable access to key data from internet communications companies, to enable independent research and evaluation on a truly global scale into the way algorithmic responses impact on the incidence, spread and impact of online disinformation
  • Consider implementation of independent national ombuds facilities to help give users recourse to independent arbitration with respect to appeals for unfair automatic content removals and account suspensions

Internet Communications Companies: 

  • Support independently managed funds for independent research and evaluation of the effectiveness of companies’ algorithmic responses to disinformation
  • Work together to improve their technological abilities to detect and curtail disinformation more effectively, and share data about this, as disinformation often exploits cross-platform methods
  • Recognize the limits of automation in content moderation and curation, and expand the human review as well as appeals process
  • Produce detailed public transparency reports, including details on automated removals of disinformation and suspension of accounts spreading disinformation, as these responses can have significant human rights and freedom of expression impacts
  • Reassess how the technology of current business models facilitates the efforts of those producing and distributing disinformation (such as in ranking and recommendations), and how this may undercut other technical efforts to identify and act against disinformation

Civil Society Organizations and Researchers: 

  • Continue independent monitoring and evaluating the successes and dangers of technical and algorithmic responses developed by internet communications companies
  • Study the technological dimensions of cross-platform disinformation campaigns to get a more rounded, holistic perspective on the problem and responses to it
  • Work towards developing new tools to assist journalists, news organizations and other verification professionals with efficient detection and analysis of disinformation, as well as with the crafting and effective promotion of debunks and authoritative information
  • Reinforce trustworthiness and transparency in regard to their roles in technological responses to tackling disinformation

Internet Communications Companies: 

  • Improve the reach and utility of their advertising transparency databases towards global geographical coverage; inclusion of all advertising topics (not only political ones); and provision of comprehensive machine-readable access, which is needed to support large-scale quantitative analyses and advertising policy evaluations
  • Produce detailed public transparency reports, including specific information on demonetization of websites and accounts spreading disinformation
  • Implement screening of political adverts for disinformation through harnessing the already established independent fact-checking efforts
  • Enable user comments on adverts, ideally from the moment they are published and for at least 24 hours. This will enable lags to be raised on potentially-harmful content as a precursor to possible further steps
  • Effectively address the problem of ‘account rentals’ (i.e. paid use of authentic user accounts by disinformation agents) to curtail the practice of individuals’ accounts being exploited for money-making through disinformation and related-advertising
  • Work together to improve their ability to detect and curtail monetization of disinformation, as monetization often exploits cross-platform methods

Advertising Brokerage and Exchange Networks: 

  • Step up their monitoring of disinformation domains and work in close collaboration with fact-checkers and other independent organizations in implementing efficient, effective, and scalable methods for demonetization of disinformation websites and content
  • Implement full advertising transparency measures, as per those recommended for internet communications companies
  • Work together to implement a consistent approach to advertising screening and transparency across networks, which could also be used as a way of spreading the cost of advertising quality screening and transparency measures

Governments and International Organizations:

  • Provide ongoing funding for independent monitoring and compliance evaluation of demonetization efforts implemented by companies and advertising brokerage and exchange networks
  • Negotiate with these commercial actors about ensuring full transparency and access to data as prerequisites of independent oversight of economic self-regulatory responses to disinformation
  • Encourage internet communications companies and advertising exchange networks to implement appropriate responses to disinformation on the basis of electoral laws and freedom of expression norms, and do so in all countries where their services are accessible
  • Strongly encourage and, if required, demand the adoption of quantifiable Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for independent measurement and assessment of the effectiveness of demonetization responses to disinformation

International Organizations:

  • Conduct follow-up evaluation of the circulation of, and engagement with, normative statements as well as assessment of the actual impact of ethical codes, such as operated by internet communications companies and news media that are relevant to disinformation issues

Individual States:

  • Ensure institutionalized multi-stakeholder governance of internet communications companies, covering transparency and the range of policies on disinformation in the context of content curation
  • Embed human rights impacts assessments within responses to disinformation from executive or legislative branches of government, especially those which risk overreach (e.g. the expansion of ‘fake news’ laws in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic)

Internet Communications Companies: 

  • Commit to values that defend vulnerable communities and groups, including from threats in multiple languages, and ensure that all countries in which they operate are served by measures adopted to combat disinformation
  • Engage diverse stakeholders in developing policies that support ethical decision-making concerning disinformation content – including if it should be removed
  • Increase capacity to deal with disinformation at scale, especially in countries in conflict, and provide swift responses to actors targeted by this disinformation, as well as redress opportunities in regard to decisions on how relevant content is treated
  • Strengthen their normative role regarding freedom of expression by ensuring regular independent review of their disinformation-related policies and implementation, and the human rights impacts thereof
  • Recognize that an ethical commitment to freedom of expression does not preclude a range of decisive actions on political disinformation that is likely to cause significant harm – such as where it threatens lives, public health, the institutions of democracy, or electoral integrity
  • Enhance transparency and disclosure of data about practical processes around managing disinformation

Media Actors:

  • Ensure that they adhere to the highest ethical and professional standards to avoid becoming captured or associated with disinformation purveyors
  • Invest in investigative journalism focused on exposing disinformation networks and explaining the risks of disinformation to their audiences and the importance of resisting it in the public interest, as a means of building trust while also pursuing truth
  • Increase the capacity of independent press councils to monitor and address disinformation (including when it spreads through news media channels) and disinformation responses (especially as they affect freedom of expression) as part of their ethics oversight role


  • Use audience research methods to measure the influence and impact of messaging aimed at developing ethics and values that help inoculate against disinformation, or undertake qualitative research into normative evolution and behavioral change focused on disinformation defenses
  • Study Media and Information Literacy initiatives to assess the impact on participants’ behaviors and sense of personal accountability regarding the need to counter disinformation

 International Organizations:

  • Work towards provision of Media and Information Literacy (MIL) educational initiatives and materials aimed at currently under-served countries, languages, and demographics
  • Encourage an holistic approach to MIL that covers freedom of expression issues, as well as disinformation across different topics (such as health, politics and the environment)
  • Encourage donors to invest specifically in countermeasures to disinformation that strengthen MIL (as well as freedom of expression, independent journalism, and media development)

Internet Communications Companies:

  • Integrate MIL into the use of their services, and empower users to understand the full range of issues relevant to disinformation, including fact-checking, algorithmic and labelling issues
  • Foster interdisciplinary action research projects designed to experiment with educational responses to disinformation, and report on these experiments in robust ways that aid knowledge sharing – both across academic disciplines and between industry, educators and researchers
  • Support the development of global and/or regional MIL responses, especially by funding projects in currently under-served regions

Individual States: 

  • Put in place or strengthen MIL policies and resource allocation, especially in the educational system where teachers also need to be trained to deliver MIL to children and youth as a counter to disinformation
  • Earmark funding and support for interventions for older citizens who are both a key voter demographic and a primary risk group for spreading disinformation
  • Support initiatives to address disinformation that targets children, youth, women, unemployed people, refugees and migrants, and rural communities

News Media:

  • Use their platforms to proactively train audiences and internet users about the difference between verified information on the one hand and disinformation on the other, and help cultivate the requisite skills to recognize this and navigate the wider content ecosystem, along with the freedom of expression issues involved
  • Support advanced training in verification and counter-disinformation investigative techniques for editorial staff
  • Collaborate with journalism schools on counter-disinformation projects involving both researchers and students to improve the capabilities of graduates and deepen their own understanding and practice 

Civil Society: 

  • Increase work in MIL innovation such as anti-disinformation games, and develop creative ways to empower constituencies beyond the educational system who are at risk from disinformation
  • Support the development of global and/or regional MIL responses, especially in currently under-served regions
  • Provide independent evaluation of MIL initiatives carried out and/or supported by internet communications companies


  • Develop and apply metrics for studying MIL in relation to disinformation
  • Focus on interdisciplinary research to develop new approaches to education as a counter disinformation measure, e.g. integrate methods from journalism studies, computer science, psychology, sociology etc.
  • Forge partnerships with news organizations to help strengthen investigative reporting into disinformation and deepen audience insights with reference to engagement with counter-disinformation content

Internet Communications Companies and News Media: 

  • With full respect for media pluralism and diversity, adopt certifiable standards with respect to credibility labelling of news institutions
  • Consider clear and simple, time-saving content labelling approaches, with full transparency about the criteria involved, the implementation process at work, and independent appeal opportunities
  • Avoid quick ix solutions, which can be misleading and have unwanted consequences, such as leading people to blindly trust lags and indicators which may not tell the whole story – or leading to people discounting these signals due to ‘false positives’ or bias
  • Experiment with signposts and indicators which encourage people to think for themselves, and raise the level of their critical Media and Information Literacy
  • Ensure that empowerment and labelling responses operate in tandem with educational responses for best effect
  • Implement better mechanisms for assuring transparency and accountability of institutions and communities engaged in the design and implementation of empowerment and credibility labelling approaches, as well as their independent evaluation
  • Develop credibility responses with great care, especially with consideration towards less developed countries, smaller media and technology companies, and disadvantaged communities who could be negatively affected by inflexible solutions that are insensitive to inequalities and media pluralism and diversity

Researchers and Civil Society:

  • Experiment with the implementation and adoption of global solutions (such as blockchain protocols) for provenance tracking and avoid piecemeal approaches
  • Track practices within the media and internet communications companies as a whole, including assessing the significance of metadata for content no matter where that content ends up

The Working Group Model

Composition and Activities

Download the full report to access a further explanation of the recommendations and response methods, as well as a 23-step freedom of expression assessment framework designed to assist UNESCO member states to formulate legislative, regulatory and policy responses to counter disinformation at the same time as respecting freedom of expression, access to information and privacy rights (found on pages 257-259 of the Report). 

The Working Group was launched during the Broadband Commission Annual Spring Meeting in New York in April 2019. 

Focus Area

Outcome Resources


Ms. Audrey Azoulay
Director General, UNESCO; 
Co-Vice Chair of the Broadband Commission 
Dr. Hessa Al Jaber 
Chairperson, Qatar Es'hailSat

Broadband Advocacy Targets