By: Lenka Homolkova UNDP Liberia Chief Technical Adviser-Elections Project, Stephen Rodriques UNDP Liberia Resident Representative, and Margaret Lamb Communications Specialist UNDP Liberia Electoral Support Project
For the first time, the world observed the International Day for Countering Hate Speech on June 18 this year, as the scale and impact of misinformation and disinformation reach unprecedented levels.
The day is a culmination of the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech that was launched on June 18, 2019.
Protecting and advancing human rights and equality are essential to everything UNDP does. We recognize that the corrosive effects of hate speech have the potential to curtail not just human rights, but also to undermine efforts to sustain peace, reduce poverty, achieve gender equality, and to support credible and transparent elections.
Hate speech is understood as communication in speech, writing or behavior, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of factors such as their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender, or other identity factor. It is often rooted in, and generates, intolerance and hatred, and can be demeaning and divisive.
Closely associated with hate speech are disinformation and misinformation. Disinformation is false information that is spread with the intent to cause harm. Misinformation is simply false information, and although it may not be intended to cause harm, it can.
While such information was previously carried to its target audiences through word of mouth, the spread of hate speech, disinformation, and misinformation has been hastened and weaponized by social media, which is one of the most reliable ways of conveying information throughout the world, and to every corner of Liberia. We know from gruesome experience that hate speech carried throughout a country can lead directly to atrocities and bring a nation to the brink of collapse. The vilification and degradation of individuals or groups can set in motion negative communal responses that, once unleashed, can be difficult to contain.
Here in Liberia, the violence that took place in Gbarpolu in the 2020 elections was fueled, in part, by hate speech and misinformation spread through social media. Local “Dey Say” or rumor-mongering, is usually accepted as fact, often targeting women candidates. With little recourse against such allegations, the targets of hate speech are vulnerable to violence.
Hate in all its forms must be addressed head on, and unflinchingly, while maintaining respect for freedom of opinion and expression. UNDP believes that hate speech can be mitigated, in part, by bringing to bear fact-checking tools, and by countering those narratives with the truth.
Working to counter the effects of hate speech, UNDP Liberia works with its partners to support the Government of Liberia, the media, and civil society in their efforts to identify and respond to hate speech and disinformation.
Some of the initiatives on this issue include training journalists on conflict-sensitive reporting, support to an early warning and early response mechanism hosted by the Liberia Peacebuilding Office, and the National Elections Commission’s work with the Inter-Party Consultative Committee.
Most recently, the UNDP Electoral Support Project has partnered with the local media network, Local Voices Liberia, to pilot iVerify, the world's first digital public good for fighting misinformation. iVerify is an innovative digital platform that is being used to identify, analyze and counter disinformation and hate speech.
The platform, created by the Brussels-based Electoral Assistance Task Force in partnership with UNDP's Chief Digital Office, has to date been used in Zambia and Honduras, with plans for deployment to Kenya and in Liberia.
iVerify is a comprehensive digital platform developed using open-source code that supports collaborative online monitoring and fact-checking of information. It provides ongoing, real-time identification of, and response to, harmful content online, by scanning media articles and every single Facebook post on any given day.
UNDP will provide technical expertise to Local Voices Liberia – a network of Liberian journalists from across the country that fact-checks and debunks misinformation, disinformation, and fake news – to customize their systems to also check against hate speech. The iVerify tool will enhance their fact-checking work by detecting trends, terms, and phrases that could trigger violence, and help to coordinate a response where appropriate.
It is hoped that this tool, in conjunction with the Liberia Peacebuilding Office’s early warning and early response mechanisms, will help to prevent, for example, a recurrence of the type of violence that took place in Gbarpolu during the 2020 Special Senatorial Elections and Referendum.
UNDP works in partnership with national institutions such as the NEC and Peace Building Office and International partners such as the Embassy of Sweden in Monrovia, Irish Aid, and the UN Peacebuilding Fund to fight the effects of hate speech and disinformation.
These efforts, however, will require more than what organizations like Local Voices Liberia alone can do. It will take the efforts of communities, leaders, civil society organizations, candidates, and elected representatives, as well as all Liberians to defeat disinformation and misinformation in pursuit of truth, equality, and sustainable peace. And herein lies the power of the iVerify platform; anyone can immediately send a text or WhatsApp message on suspected hate speech, disinformation or misinformation to the iVerify platform and get feedback on whether the information is factual or not.
Together, let us work to secure Liberia's hard-won peace, and further strengthen the country's democratic foundations.