Amid a wave of online mis- and disinformation centred on global flashpoint issues such as the climate crisis, attacks and wars in Gaza and Ukraine, and growing concerns that the critical 2024 USs presidential election will once again be tainted by malicious actors, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has revealed a seven-point action plan to address the problem that it says constitutes a “major threat to stability and social cohesion”.
Based on an “unprecedented” consultation process that drew over 10,000 contributions from 134 United Nations (UN) members over the past 18 months, the 40-page action plan outlines core principles that must be respected, and concrete measures that must be implemented by governments, regulatory authorities, tech platforms, and civil society.
“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, posing major risks to societal cohesion, peace and stability,” said Unesco director general Audrey Azoulay.
“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 proposals are organised around seven principles that must be respected when it comes to tackling disinformation:
- That the impact on human rights become a compass for all decision-making, at every stage and by all stakeholders;
- That independent public regulators be set up – or tasked – all over the world, with clearly defined roles and adequate resources to perform their mission;
- That these regulators coordinate through a wider network to prevent tech companies taking advantage of any regulatory disparities;
- That content moderation be feasible and effective at scale, across all regions and in all languages;
- That accountability and transparency be established within tech platform algorithms, which too often centre maximum engagement at the expense of the truth;
- That tech platforms take the initiative to educate and train their users to think critically;
- And that regulators and tech platforms together take stronger measures around sensitive moments, such as elections or crises.
Protecting freedom of expression
At the core of Unesco’s work on disinformation is the central requirement that at all times, freedom of expression and human rights are preserved.
“Restricting or limiting speech would be a terrible solution. Having media outlets and information tools that are independent, qualitative and free, is best long-term response to disinformation,” said Azoulay.
In particular, the plan calls for tech platforms to have teams of qualified moderators, sufficiently staffed and linguistically and culturally in-tune with their user bases, to reliably and effectively oversee what is posted online. These teams must ensure that their moderation processes are transparent, including when automated algorithms are deployed to do some of the heavy lifting – as they are at Meta’s Instagram, among others. They will also have to facilitate their use in all the main languages of the country where they operate, and report on user complaints.
Issues specific to the arts and cultural sectors are also included in the proposals, highlighting some of the risks faced by artists and the need to preserve online access to diverse cultural content as a fundamental human right – this references a declaration adopted by Unesco members at a 2022 conference.
Further sections of the Unesco strategy are concerned with preserving the integrity of electoral processes through risk assessments, content-flagging and more transparency around political advertising and how it is targeted, and better responding to emergency situations.
Multiple regulators around the world have welcomed the initiative and a number of bodies – predominantly in the Global South – have already said they are ready to start work.
Unesco plans to hold a world conference of regulatory bodies in 2024, and is mobilising dedicated funding, including a €1m pledge from the European Commission, to support them in transposing the action plan into their various legal and regulatory regimes.