UNESCO Unveils Action Plan to Regulate Social Media Platforms

UNESCO Unveils Action Plan to Regulate Social Media Platforms

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, sounded the alarm on Monday about the intensification of disinformation and hate speech online, which constitutes “a major threat to stability and social cohesion”.

To put an end to this, she has unveiled UNESCO’s action plan, which is the result of extensive worldwide consultations and is backed by a global opinion survey underlining the urgent need for action.

“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.

To protect access to information, we must regulate these platforms without delay while at the same time protecting freedom of expression and human rights”, said Audrey Azoulay at a press conference at UNESCO headquarters on Monday.

UNESCO’s action plan is the result of a consultation process on a scale unprecedented within the United Nations system, with over 10,000 contributions from 134 countries collected over the last eighteen months.

Over its forty pages, the plan outlines the principles which must be respected as well as the concrete measures which must be implemented by all stakeholders: governments, regulatory authorities, civil society and the platforms themselves.

Representatives from independent regulators have already welcomed UNESCO’s initiative, and several of them – notably in Africa and Latin America – have indicated that they are ready to begin implementing these measures. To this end, UNESCO will organise the first World Conference of Regulators in mid-2024.

The Organization will also support its Member States in transposing this action plan into their own laws and regulations. To this end, UNESCO is mobilising dedicated funding, including 1 million Euros already pledged by the European Commission.

Seven fundamental principles to be respected:

  1. The impact on human rights becomes the compass for all decision-making at every stage and by every stakeholder.
  2. Independent public regulators are set up everywhere in the world, with clearly defined roles and sufficient resources to carry out their mission.
  3. These independent regulators work in close coordination as part of a wider network to prevent digital companies from taking advantage of disparities between national regulations.
  4. Content moderation is feasible and effective at scale, in all regions and in all languages.
  5. Accountability and transparency are established in these platforms’ algorithms, which are too often geared towards maximising engagement at the cost of reliable information.
  6. Platforms take more initiative to educate and train users to think critically.
  7. Regulators and platforms take stronger measures during particularly sensitive moments like elections and crises.

Freedom of expression must be protected
“Our work has been guided by one central requirement: the protection at all times of freedom of expression and all other human rights. Restricting or limiting speech would be a terrible solution. Having media outlets and information tools that are independent, qualitative and free is the best long-term response to disinformation”, the Director-General underscored.

In particular, platforms must have teams of qualified moderators in sufficient numbers and speaking all the main languages of their social media so that they can carry out reliable and effective control of content that is posted online.

They must ensure the transparency of the moderation process, including when it is automated through algorithms. They must also facilitate their use in all the main languages of the country in which they operate and report on complaints from users.

Sections of this strategy are also dedicated to the measures needed to guarantee electoral integrity – notably through electoral risk assessments, clear content-flagging and greater transparency of political advertising and its targeting – and to respond to emergency situations, such as armed conflicts and disasters.

Elements specific to the cultural sector have also been included, highlighting the risks faced by artists and the need for online access to “diverse cultural content” as a fundamental human right to be safeguarded – with reference to the Declaration unanimously adopted by UNESCO Member States at the MONDIACULT Conference in September 2022.

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Global survey confirms the urgent need for action
The publication of UNESCO’s action plan is accompanied by an opinion poll conducted by IPSOS for UNESCO, with over 8,000 respondents across 16 countries where elections will be held in 2024.

It shows that 85% of citizens are worried about the impact of online disinformation at a time when social media platforms have become the primary source of information for a large majority of them.

The same survey indicates that 87% of citizens believe that this misinformation has already had a major impact on their country’s political life and fear that it will influence the results of their country’s elections in the next year. As a result, 88% are calling on governments and regulators to resolve this problem quickly by regulating social media.

Click here to Download UNESCO’s action plan and here to download the global opinion survey conducted by UNESCO/IPSOS.

UNESCO Unveils Action Plan to Regulate Social Media Platforms 2

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