An international survey has revealed that over 85% of individuals are concerned about the impact of online disinformation, with 87% believing that it has already harmed the political landscape in their respective countries. These findings coincide with the United Nations’ announcement of a strategy to address the issue.
Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural body, emphasized the significant risks to social cohesion, peace, and stability posed by false information and hate speech online, particularly when amplified by social media platforms. Azoulay stressed the urgent need for regulations that protect access to accurate information while preserving freedom of expression and human rights. To address these challenges, UNESCO presented a “governance blueprint” intended for governments, regulators, and online platforms.
The survey, commissioned by UNESCO, focused on 16 countries with upcoming national elections, representing a total of 2.5 billion voters. The poll, conducted by Ipsos and involving 8,000 respondents from countries like Austria, Croatia, the US, Algeria, Mexico, Ghana, and India, found that 56% of internet users primarily rely on social media for news, surpassing TV (44%) and media websites (29%). Despite social media’s popularity, trust in the information it provides was notably lower (50%) than traditional media sources (66% for television, 63% for radio, and 57% for media websites and apps).
In all 16 countries, 68% of respondents identified social media as the primary platform for fake news, ahead of messaging apps (38%). This perception was consistent across various demographics, including age groups, social backgrounds, and political preferences. A striking 85% expressed concerns about the influence of disinformation, with 87% believing it had already significantly impacted their country’s political life and would continue to do so in upcoming elections.
The survey also found that hate speech was widespread, with 67% of respondents having encountered it online (and 74% among those under 35). A large majority (88%) called for government and regulatory intervention, while 90% expected social media platforms to take action.
Particular vigilance was highlighted during election campaigns, with 89% of those polled demanding government and regulatory oversight and 91% expecting social media platforms to be more vigilant during democratic processes.
UNESCO’s plan, based on seven key principles, emerged from an extensive consultation process involving more than 10,000 contributions from 134 countries over an 18-month period. UNESCO’s chief of section for freedom of expression, Guilherme Canela de Souza Godoi, noted that over 50 countries were already regulating social media, often without adhering to international free speech and human rights standards.
The guidelines put forth by UNESCO represent a robust blueprint rooted in a human rights approach, designed to guide governments and regulators. Several African and Latin American countries have already expressed interest in adopting these principles.
Notably, one major online platform has indicated a preference for a consistent global governance framework over a proliferation of national and regional systems. UNESCO intends to organize a World Conference of Regulators in 2024 to further these efforts.
The seven key principles outlined by UNESCO are aimed at making human rights the guiding factor in decision-making across all stakeholders. These principles emphasize the establishment of independent and well-resourced public regulators worldwide, their collaboration to prevent digital organizations from exploiting regulatory differences, and effective content moderation by platforms while ensuring transparency in algorithmic decisions. Furthermore, stronger measures, including risk assessments and transparency in political advertising, should be implemented by regulators and platforms during elections and crises like armed conflicts and disasters.
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