When truth is defined as trustworthy information that people use to make important decisions about their lives, it is arguably as fundamental to human existence as air, water, food, and shelter. Yet, the pervasive global spread of misinformation and disinformation has resulted in falsehoods being passed off as truth and inconvenient facts being derided as fake news. The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, in its first in-person conference since the beginning of the pandemic, recently convened a multidisciplinary cast of Kennedy School scholars, other Harvard faculty, and visiting scholars to offer different perspectives on the fundamental question of whether  there is “A Right to Truth?”

Discussions throughout the day addressed a wide variety of questions on the topic, including: What is truth, especially in the context of diverse human perspectives? Does how truths are sought and created shape their form? Is there a human right to truth, and a corresponding responsibility to seek and disseminate it? How do we govern ourselves democratically in an era when our trust in journalism is in question and social platforms and other technologies are increasing the speed and reach of misinformation and disinformation? Thoughts from some of the panelists follow.

Mathias Risse speaking.

Professor Mathias Risse, Carr Center faculty director and conference co-organizer

“We are familiar with a right to truth in a range of specific contexts. In the human rights world we are familiar with it in the domain of transitional justice, where the United Nations human rights machinery has long recognized a right to truth specifically in the context of mass atrocities. The idea is that victims and other members of communities where massive abuses happened are entitled to actually know what happened, who did what to whom. And we know of specific rights to truth in other contexts, such as in medical ethics and in the judicial context when oath taking is involved, things like that. So the right to truth is familiar from specific contexts—that is how we know it—but then there is the question of: How broadly an entitlement to truth can we formulate here?”

Joan Donovan smiling into mic.

Joan Donovan, research director for the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy

“It really comes down to a question of access to and distribution of knowledge. It’s not just that people need information to make political decisions; people need robust access to knowledge, which is different from information, in order to live their lives. And other institutions that used to be more powerful and more present in people's lives, like libraries, have of course been gutted and haven’t had the opportunity to provide those services to people as they try to understand what is this world and how do I get along in it.”

“It’s not just that people need information to make political decisions; people need robust access to knowledge, which is different from information, in order to live their lives.”

Joan Donovan
Sheila Jasanoff speaking.

Professor Sheila Jasanoff, Harvard Science, Technology and Society Program founder and director and conference co-organizer

“A certain kind of power accrues to the users of information. We’re not just talking about a world in which someone generates information and they are in the knower position and it’s our duty to root out their biases. It is that, once claims start circulating around the world, people glom on to them for various reasons. And then those reasons become sufficiently powerful so that those people and those institutions develop their own sense of what is rightful claims-making. People become dependent, in a sense, on the false product in order to make their own true product. So we’re not talking about one … moment in which a claim which is either true or false begins to circulate in the world. We’re talking about a very complex network of institutions in which some users of information have a stake in what others of them would call a false representation.”

Susanna Siegel speaking.

Professor Susanna Siegel, Harvard University Department of Philosophy

"So if we ask: ‘What kinds of content or frames should be foregrounded in news journalism?’, that's a different sort of question from: ‘Given that somebody says something, how can we check whether it's true?’” So there are these two separable dimensions. On the truth dimension, we ask things like … ‘Is it true?’ ‘Is it verified?’ ‘Is it supported by evidence?’ Here we're just given a belief or a statement that we're asking these questions about, and how we got to be entertaining this statement is just sort of left offstage. Whereas the selection dimension puts those things on stage. We ask: ‘Well, which truths are sought?’ ‘Which questions should direct inquiry?’ And ‘What should the content of the news be?’ in the case of journalism."

Aliaksandr Herasimenka speaking.

Aliaksandr Herasimenka, director of research, Oxford University Programme on Democracy and Technology

“I think this discussion reveals to the great extent to which—when we try to look into this question beyond Western context to different, very diverse contexts—it becomes even more complex because of different perceptions of what we mean by a political lie. What is the source of lying in different contexts? I think in Russia, the greatest source of misinformation is its own government, right? And it's a very different context from what many other countries live in. This places us in a difficult situation in terms of how to summarize this research. But I think it's still worth moving forward.”

Photos by Jessica Scranton

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