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UNESCO unveils action plan to regulate social media platforms

According to a new survey, more than 85 per cent of people are worried about the impact of online disinformation and 87 per cent believe it has already harmed their country’s politics.

On Monday, UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay sounded the alarm on the intensification of disinformation and hate speech online, which she said poses ‘major risks to social cohesion, peace, and stability.’

Her warning comes on the back of a UNESCO-commissioned survey in 16 countries due to hold national elections next year, according to which more than 87 per cent of participants believe the phenomenon has already significantly affected political life and fear its influence going forward.

‘Digital technology has enabled immense progress on freedom of speech, but social media platforms have also accelerated and amplified the spread of false information and hate speech,’ Azoulay told reporters. ‘To protect access to information, we must regulate these platforms without delay, while at the same time protecting freedom of expression and human rights.’

As the findings additionally stipulate, of the 8,000 people from Austria, Croatia, the US, Algeria, Mexico, Ghana, and India (among others) who were surveyed, 56 per cent of them get their news from social media.

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Far more than from TV (44 per cent) or digital publications (29 per cent), social media was the main source of news in almost every country, despite trust in the information it provided being notably lower than in traditional media: 50 per cent against 66 per cent for TV, 63 per cent for radio, and 57 per cent for websites and apps.

Across all countries and ‘prevalent in every age group, background, and political preference,’ 68 per cent of respondents said that social media was where fake news was most widespread.

Disinformation was overwhelmingly viewed as a concrete threat, with 85 per cent saying they worried about its impacts, while 67 per cent felt the same way about hate speech.

Expressing concern over the situation, the United Nations has stressed the dire need for effective regulation to control the dissemination of disinformation.

‘People are very concerned about this,’ said Mathieu Gallard of Ipsos, the pollster commissioned by the UN to conduct the survey. ‘They are especially worried during elections – and they want all actors to fight it.’

To put an end to this ‘scourge,’ the organisation has just unveiled a new action plan, which is the result of an extensive worldwide consultation process and which outlines seven fundamental principles that it asserts must be respected as well as the ‘measures which must be implemented by all stakeholders: governments, regulatory authorities, civil society and the platforms themselves.’

The guidelines include establishing independent and well-resourced public regulators everywhere that work closely together as part of a wider network to prevent digital organisations from taking advantage of national regulatory differences; moderating content effectively, with accountability (regarding algorithms geared towards maximising engagement at the cost of reliable information) and at scale in all regions and in all languages; and risk assessments, content flagging, and greater transparency around political advertising during elections and crises such as armed conflicts and disasters.

This, says Guilherme Canela de Souza Godoi, UNESCO’s chief of section for freedom of expression, represents ‘a strong blueprint based on a human rights approach, designed to inform and inspire governments and regulators’ which he explains should be ‘the compass for all decision-making at every stage and by every stakeholder.’