The first-ever conference to discuss draft global guidelines for regulating digital platforms ended on Thursday in Paris with a call to uphold the right to seek and receive information in the face of rising disinformation online.
More than 4,300 people participated in the Internet for Trust Conference, organized by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which will launch the guidelines in September.
The three-day event marked the latest phase in the global dialogue to develop regulatory solutions for social media to improve the reliability of information and promote human rights online.
Fertile ground for falsehoods
“The blurring of boundaries between true and false, the highly-organized denial of scientific facts, the amplification of disinformation and conspiracies – these did not originate on social networks. But, in the absence of regulation, they flourish there much better than the truth,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay warned in her opening speech.
She urged countries to act together so that information remains a global common good, stating that “only by taking the full measure of this technological revolution can we ensure it does not sacrifice human rights, freedom of expression and democracy.”
No facts, no truth
Speakers such as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner, journalist Maria Ressa from the Philippines, addressed participants.
“Lies spread faster than facts. For some reason, facts are really boring. Lies – especially when laced with fear, with anger, with hate, with tribalism – us against them. They spread. It’s like throwing a lit match into kindling,” said Ms. Ressa in her keynote speech.
She cautioned against tolerating social media algorithms which reward lies, as future generations will inherit a world in which truth has been dangerously devalued.
“Without facts, you can’t have truth, without truth, you can’t have trust, and we have no shared reality,” she said.
Disinformation as ‘ammunition’
In his message to the Conference, the Brazilian President, who is known as “Lula”, recalled the violent attacks last month against democratic institutions in his country.
“What happened that day was the culmination of a campaign, initiated much earlier, and that used lies and disinformation as ammunition,” he said.
“To a large extent, this campaign was nurtured, organized, and disseminated through digital platforms and messaging apps. This is the same method used to generate acts of violence elsewhere in the world. It must stop.”
Top YouTube influencer Felipe Neto, who also is from Brazil, shared his experiences with extremist content pushed by algorithms, but stressed that the aim is not to shut down digital platforms.
“It’s about accountability, stopping impunity, bringing them to the table, and saying ‘you need to be responsible for the mistakes you’ve made and that you’re going to make,” said Mr. Neto, who has more than 44 million online followers.
Global response required
Currently, at least 55 countries are working on regulatory initiatives, according to UNESCO. However, Ms. Azoulay advocated for a coherent, global approach based on human rights, noting that if regulations are developed in isolation, they are doomed to fail.
“Information disruption is by definition a global problem, so our reflections must take place at the global scale,” she said.
The UNESCO chief closed the conference by urging all countries to join its efforts to transform the internet into a tool which is truly at the service of the public and that helps assure the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek and receive information.