A person accesses a social media app on their smartphone on September 4, 2018.

A person accesses a social media app on their smartphone on September 4, 2018.

(Photo: Muhammed Selim Korkutata/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

UN Chief Calls on Governments to Combat 'Grave Global Harm' of Online Disinformation

"Digital platforms are being misused to subvert science and spread disinformation and hate to billions of people," António Guterres warned.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday implored governments around the world to take concerted action to curb the rapid online spread of destructive misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech.

"Alarm bells over the latest form of artificial intelligence—generative AI—are deafening," said Guterres. "They are loudest from the developers who designed it. These scientists and experts have called on the world to act, declaring AI an existential threat to humanity on a par with the risk of nuclear war. We must take those warnings seriously."

"But the advent of generative AI must not distract us from the damage digital technology is already doing to our world," Guterres continued. "The proliferation of hate and lies in the digital space is causing grave global harm—now. It is fueling conflict, death, and destruction—now. It is threatening democracy and human rights—now. It is undermining public health and climate action—now."

"The proliferation of hate and lies in the digital space is causing grave global harm—now."

"When social media emerged a generation ago, digital platforms were embraced as exciting new ways to connect," noted the U.N. chief. "But today, this same technology is often a source of fear, not hope. Digital platforms are being misused to subvert science and spread disinformation and hate to billions of people."

"This clear and present global threat demands clear and coordinated global action," he added.

Guterres delivered his speech at an event marking the publication of a new policy brief that will inform a U.N. Code of Conduct for Information Integrity on Digital Platforms, which is currently being developed ahead of next year's Summit of the Future.

In his introduction to the document, Guterres wrote that he hopes the U.N.'s recommendations will "provide a gold standard for guiding action to strengthen information integrity on digital platforms," including social media sites, search engines, and messaging apps.

The brief includes proposals "aimed at creating guardrails to help governments come together around guidelines that promote facts while exposing conspiracies and lies and safeguarding freedom of expression and information," said Guterres. It also seeks "to help tech companies navigate difficult ethical and legal issues and build business models based on a healthy information ecosystem."

Around the world, responses to misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech have so far been lacking, Guterres noted.

"Governments have sometimes resorted to drastic measures—including blanket internet shutdowns and bans—that lack any legal basis and infringe on human rights," the U.N. chief observed. Meanwhile, "some tech companies have done far too little, too late to prevent their platforms from contributing to violence and hatred."

The brief, part of the U.N.'s emerging framework for a joint international effort to tackle online disinformation, provides a roadmap "to make the digital space safer and more inclusive while vigorously protecting human rights," said Guterres.

As Guterres explained, the document begins to outline principles the U.N. hopes will be implemented "voluntarily." They include:

  • A commitment by governments, tech companies, and other stakeholders to refrain from using, supporting, or amplifying disinformation and hate speech for any purpose;
  • A pledge by governments to guarantee a free, viable, independent, and plural media landscape, with strong protections for journalists;
  • The consistent application of policies and resources by digital platforms around the world, to eliminate double standards that allow hate speech and disinformation to flourish in some languages and countries, while they are prevented more effectively in others;
  • Agreed protocols for a rapid response by governments and digital platforms when the stakes are highest—in times of conflict and high social tensions; and
  • A commitment from digital platforms to make sure all products take account of safety, privacy, and transparency.

In addition, "the brief proposes that tech companies should undertake to move away from damaging business models that prioritize engagement above human rights, privacy, and safety," said Guterres. "It suggests that advertisers—who are deeply implicated in monetizing and spreading damaging content—should take responsibility for the impact of their spending."

"It recognizes the need for a fundamental shift in incentive structures," he added. "Disinformation and hate should not generate maximum exposure and massive profits."

According toThe Associated Press, "Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, agreed that while it's a positive step that the U.N. is calling for international solutions to this global problem, its code of conduct won't likely be sufficient to stop the torrent of false and hateful information online."

"The fact of the matter is that voluntary codes, including the companies' own terms of service on these issues, have failed to rein them in," Beirich told the news outlet. "The problem for the U.N. is they can't do what it seems is going to have to be done to deal with this problem, which is basically legislation."

The brief, which the U.N. sees as a blueprint for lawmakers, notes that "even as we seek solutions to protect information integrity in the current landscape, we must ensure that recommendations are future-proof, addressing emerging technologies and those yet to come."

To that end, Guterres stressed the need for "urgent and immediate measures to ensure that all AI applications are safe, secure, responsible, and ethical, and comply with human rights obligations."

As Al Jazeera reported, "Guterres has announced plans to start work by the end of the year on a high-level AI advisory body to regularly review AI governance arrangements and offer recommendations on how they can align with human rights, the rule of law, and [the] common good."

On Monday, the U.N. chief said he is open "to the idea that we could have an artificial intelligence agency" akin to the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, he added, "only member states can create it, not the Secretariat of the United Nations."

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