More than 85% of people are worried about the impact of online disinformation and 87% believe it has already harmed their country’s politics, according to a global survey, as the United Nations announced a plan to tackle the phenomenon.
Audrey Azoulay, director general of the UN’s culture body, Unesco, told reporters on Monday that false information and hate speech online – accelerated and amplified by social media platforms – posed “major risks to social cohesion, peace and stability”.
Regulation was urgently needed “to protect access to information … while at the same time protecting freedom of expression and human rights”, Azoulay said as she presented a “governance blueprint” for governments, regulators and platforms.
A Unesco-commissioned survey in 16 countries due to hold national elections next year – with a total of 2.5 billion voters – showed how pressing the need for effective regulation had become, the organisation said.
The survey by pollster Ipsos of 8,000 people in countries including Austria, Croatia, the US, Algeria, Mexico, Ghana and India, found that 56% of internet users got their news mainly from social media, far more than from TV (44%) or media sites (29%).
Social media was the main source of news in almost every country, despite trust in the information it provided being significantly lower than in traditional media: 50% against 66% for television, 63% for radio and 57% for media websites and apps.
Across all 16 countries, 68% of respondents said social media was where fake news was most widespread, ahead of messaging apps (38%), a belief “overwhelmingly prevalent in all countries, age groups, social backgrounds and political preferences”.
Disinformation was overwhelmingly seen as a concrete threat, with 85% saying they worried about its influence. Eighty-seven per cent said disinformation had already had a major impact on national political life and would play a part in 2024’s elections.
Hate speech was also seen as widespread: 67% of respondents said they had seen it online (and 74% of under-35s). Large majorities (88%) said governments and regulators must address both issues, and 90% also wanted platforms to take action.
Vigilance was seen as particularly important during election campaigns. Of those polled, 89% demanded government and regulatory intervention and 91% expected social media platforms to be even more alert when democracy was directly in play.
“People are very concerned about disinformation, across every country and social category – age, education, rural or urban,” said Mathieu Gallard of Ipsos. “They are especially worried during elections – and they want all actors to fight it.”
Unesco said its plan, based on seven key principles, had emerged from a consultation process that it described as “unprecedented” in the UN system, drawing on more than 10,000 contributions from 134 countries over an 18-month period.
Guilherme Canela de Souza Godoi, Unesco’s chief of section for freedom of expression, said more than 50 countries were already regulating social media, but often not in accordance with international free speech and human rights norms.
The guidelines represented “a strong blueprint based on a human rights approach, designed to inform and inspire governments and regulators”, he said, adding that several African and Latin American countries had already expressed interest.
At least one major platform had told the 194-member UN body it would prefer a consistent global governance framework over a proliferation of national and regional systems, Unesco said. It plans to organise a World Conference of Regulators in 2024.
It said the seven key principles must be respected to ensure that the impact on human rights becomes “the compass for all decision-making at every stage and by every stakeholder”.
Independent and well-resourced public regulators must be established everywhere, Unesco said, and should work closely together as part of a wider network to prevent digital organisations from taking advantage of national regulatory differences.
Platforms must moderate content effectively and at scale, in all regions and in all languages, and be “accountable and transparent with regard to algorithms that are too often geared towards maximising engagement at the cost of reliable information”.
Regulators and platforms must also take stronger measures – including risk assessments, content flagging and greater transparency around political advertising – during elections and crises such as armed conflicts and disasters, Unesco said.