CHAT GPT is writing news and informative articles, TikTok has replaced Google as the preferred search engine for many Gen Z and Millennials, and Twitter/X replaced its verification ticks, previously used by journalists, academics and scientists, with a pay-to-play blue tick strategy. It’s no wonder that in some circles, critical thought and the ability to check facts have become a challenge. And if you’re worried about the pace at which disinformation is spreading around the world and causing inconceivable harm, well, maybe you’ll find some comfort in the fact you’re not alone. 

A recent global survey by the United Nations has recently found that a whopping 85 per cent of people are worried about the impact of online disinformation, with 87 per cent believing it has already harmed their country’s politics, with a fear that it will influence their next elections. In response, Unesco, the UN’s cultural body, has unveiled an action plan to attempt to tackle the situation. 

Just this week, Audrey Azoulay, director-general of Unesco, spoke to reporters about the global fear, which also includes things like hate speech, and the urgency to tackle the problem. “Digital technology has enabled immense progress on freedom of speech,” Azoulay said of the pressing issue. “But social media platforms have also accelerated and amplified the spread of false information and hate speech, posing major risks to societal cohesion, peace and stability. To protect access to information, we must regulate these platforms without delay, while at the same time protecting freedom of expression and human rights.” 

Unesco’s action plan came from a consultation process that was unprecedented within the UN and included over 10,000 contributions for 134 countries, that took place over the last year and a half. The survey that gathered the data spanned 16 countries due to hold national elections, including Austria, Croatia, the US, Algeria, Mexico, Ghana and India, and found that 56 per cent of internet users got their news mainly from social media, even despite also finding that trust in the information was significantly lower than traditional media: 50 per cent vs 66 per cent for television, 63 per cent for radio and 57 per cent for media websites and apps. Compare that to the 44 per cent that cited television and 29 per cent that predominately use media sites for their main source of news and when we consider the factors mentioned at the beginning of this article, and the factors that drive what is seen the most on social media, it’s no wonder the UN is calling for change. Looking at hate speech, 67 per cent of respondents said they had seen it online, 75 per cent of them were under 35, and an overwhelming majority (88 per cent) agreed that governments and regulators must address both issues, while 90 per cent said they wanted the platforms themselves to take action. 


How does the UN plan to combat the issue? Through a seven-principal strategic plan that pushed for independent and well-resourced regulators, placing a moral compass on human rights, large-scale and multi-national content moderation, platform accountability and transparency around algorithms, education and training initiatives for users that should be provided by the platforms themselves and stronger measures to be undertaken by both platforms and regulators during particularly sensitive moments, such as global crises and elections. 

It’s not hard to see the urgency of the call right now when we look around and find ourselves at a point in history where global conflicts, humanitarian emergencies, economic crises and climate change emergencies, not to mention the stacks and stacks of data we have showing us the negative impact of hateful and harmful media has on every generation right now, are on the rise, or at least, in some case, a new norm for some. “Our work has been guided by one central requirement: the protection at all times of freedom of expression and all other human rights,” said Azoulay. “Restricting or limiting speech would be a terrible solution. Having media outlets and information tools that are independent, qualitative and free, is the best long-term response to disinformation.”

Interestingly, as Guilherme Canela de Souza Godoi, Unesco’s chief of section for freedom of expression, points out, despite more than 50 countries already regulating social media, this is not always in accordance with international free speech and human rights baselines. Unesco claimed that at least one of the major platforms has called for more a consistent global governance framework, instead of a more national and regional one. In response, Unesco now plans to organise a World Conference of Regulators in 2024. 


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