UNESCO launches global dialogue towards improving the reliability of information across digital platforms
UNESCO's Global Conference ‘Internet for Trust’ (i4T), 21–23 February 2023, seeks to foster dialogue and arrive at a shared consensus of what global measures are recommendable for the fostering and sustainment of equitable and reliable information for civil society across all digital platforms.
20 February 2023, Bangkok—As part of its fundamental mandate to foster reliable, accessible, and informative communication and information across the globe, UNESCO has launched a global dialogue on guidelines for regulating digital platforms, expressly to fight disinformation and hate speech, as well as to protect freedom of expression and human rights.
The high point of this ongoing effort is the international conference, Internet for Trust: Towards Guidelines for Regulating Digital Platforms for Information as a Public Good (i4T), taking place at the Organization’s Paris headquarters from 21 through 23 February.
The i4T Conference will directly inform UNESCO’s presentation, in mid-2023, of global guidelines, regulatory bodies and digital companies. Commenting on the timeliness and urgency of this effort, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay comments:
The call is now coming loud and clear from all quarters. It is time to address one of the defining questions of our age, with implications for democracy and human rights worldwide: the challenge of how to support States in developing principles and rules for digital platforms so that they enable freedom of expression, and promote the availability of accurate and reliable information.
A flawed business model for social media?
Social media and other digital platforms have empowered people worldwide to communicate, share information, and therein constructively and progressively transform their societies. In fact, social media can be an effective vehicle for the promotion of social cohesion while calling out various kinds of corruption in government, the workplace, or in other aspects of our everyday lives, allowing communication across a societal ‘commons’, when other forms of dialogue are being increasingly stymied by surveillance and digital tracking.
Nevertheless, these same platforms can also function as incubators for disinformation, hate speech, and harmful conspiracy theories.
In recent years, the issue of how to effectively and fairly monitor and moderate divisive content on digital platforms has been of growing importance, as violence, insurrection, marred elections and increasingly troubled transfers of power in the world’s democracies have been gaining traction.
Recent studies show that audience engagement, in itself, can be prioritized by social media companies at nearly any cost to their own audiences and the societies that host them. This can lead to the empowerment of algorithms favoring and thereby promoting the most controversial content, because it triggers the most reaction and interactive response among users, all towards monetizing the world’s attention. In spite of growing evidence that this operating model can ultimately damage the fabric of our societies, the sowing of distrust among diverse peoples helps to seed extremism, ultimately serving to undermine fundamental human rights. Notably, there appear to be vast imbalances of moderation resources between the world’s various regions and languages, these resources sometimes distributed on the basis of financial or political interests, or being activated far too late to respond effectively to public outrage, such as when election meddling or outright violence has already transpired.
Asia-Pacific region ranks high in social media consumption
While the i4T conference takes a global view of the issues at stake in digital platform regulation, it is notable that among all the world’s users of social media, Asia and the Pacific, which is home to nearly 60 per cent of the world’s population, ranks particularly high in user engagement with digital platforms. Many users can be prone to engaging with content created by social influencers and other forms of social media, ‘alternative’ news providers, and e-commerce apps, leading some observers to even speak of a swiftly developing ‘Platform Economy’ over the coming years. As some regional observers assert that Asia is increasingly assuming a global leadership position in the increasing conversion to digital platforms from more traditional formats for economic and cultural development, it is clear that any successful and sustainable regulation aimed at countering misinformation, or the curtailment of free speech and human rights, will to no small extent – and despite all their implied challenges – depend not only upon national developments but global, cooperative agreements forged over considerable geo-political, economic, societal, and cultural hemispheres.
Global issues require global guidelines
Many countries are advancing regulation of digital platforms to respond to these issues, but this effort has, to date, been uncoordinated and fragmented, with some countries clearly not in line with international norms of what constitutes freedom of expression. Given the global dominance by a limited number of players, the need for a consistent, yet adaptable and context-responsive global approach has never been more pressing than now.
As the United Nations agency concerned with communication and information issues, UNESCO is leading global consultations on this topic, not only among UN agencies, but involving governments, regulatory bodies, digital companies, academia, and civil society. This global dialogue is culminating in the first global conference focused on developing concrete guidance for the regulation of digital platforms, with thousands of representatives from various stakeholder groups participating.
Subsequent to the i4T conference, UNESCO will summarize the feedback received during conference discussions and, with this collective guidance, engage in further consultations, ultimately aiming to finalize and publish the first global guidelines on the topic in mid-2023. These guidelines are intended to be consulted by governments, regulators, digital companies and additional groups to implement policies and tools as needed, no less with UNESCO's expertise and support, while ensuring that these efforts are are aligned to international norms pertaining to human rights.
UNESCO’s initiative responds to the call from the UN Secretary General in “Our Common Agenda” to address the spread of disinformation and the denial of scientifically established facts, both of which pose ‘an existential risk to humanity.’
UNESCO’s mandate to provide guidelines for regulation
UNESCO has a global mandate, enshrined in its Constitution, to promote the free flow of ideas by word and image. This mandate leads UN action to promote freedom of expression and access to information. This includes a decades-long history of providing guidance to and promoting cooperation between broadcast regulators and press councils, including by advancing international standards.
The Windhoek+30 Declaration on Information as a Public Good in the Digital Age, endorsed by UNESCO’s 193 Member States in 2021, calls for increased transparency by technology companies, support for the long-term viability of news media, and teaching media and information literacy to citizens everywhere.
UNESCO is working assiduously to improve the transparency of digital platforms, including through developing a series of principles for transparency and accountability in the digital age. UNESCO has also established the first global standard on the ethics of artificial intelligence, adopted unanimously by its Member States in 2021, which includes a specific call for ‘appropriate frameworks, including regulation’, to address these issues.
For more information: Internet for Trust
Press contact: Gregory Galligan, International Consultant, Public Information and Outreach, UNESCO Bangkok, g.galligan(at)unesco.org