Secretary-General António Guterres briefs reporters on his Information Integrity on Digital Platforms policy brief. (UN Photo/ Mark Garten) Secretary-General António Guterres briefs reporters on his Information Integrity on Digital Platforms policy brief. (UN Photo/ Mark Garten) 

Take risk of AI, disinformation seriously – UN Chief

Member states must address the “rapid spread of lies and hate” in the digital ecosystem, says United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres, as the UN launches a new report to promote information integrity on digital platforms.

By Zeus Legaspi

UN chief António Guterres called on countries to seriously heed the warnings over the risks posed by artificial intelligence (AI), particularly generative AI, which he said are “loudest from the developers who designed it”.

Generative artificial intelligence (AI) is a type of artificial intelligence system that can generate text, images, and other media.

Guterres, however, said that the rapid development of AI must not distract people from the “grave” damage that digital technology is currently inflicting upon the world.

“The proliferation of hate and lies in the digital space is causing grave global harm – now. It is fueling conflict, death, and destruction – now,” he cautioned.

Guterres further warned that hate speech and disinformation on digital platforms are already threatening democracy and human rights and are undermining public health and climate action.

Misuse of digital space

While social media platforms have supported communities through crises and amplified the voices of the marginalized, the same technology has become a source of fear and not hope, the UN Secretary-General said.

“Digital platforms are being misused to subvert science and spread disinformation and hate to billions of people,” he said.

He then appealed for clear and coordinated global action against what he called a “clear and present global threat”.

Part of this global effort is the UN’s recent policy brief on information integrity on digital platforms. This brief bids to “put forward a framework for an [concerted] international response.

Solving the problem

Information integrity is the accuracy, consistency, and reliability of information. This is now threatened by disinformation, misinformation, and hate speech, which then threatens human progress, the UN policy brief said.

“While traditional media remain an important source of news for most people in conflict areas, hatred spread on digital platforms has also sparked and fueled violence,” the brief said.

The policy brief’s proposals are “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,” Guterres said.

Further, the UN chief said that recommendations in the brief seek to make the digital world safer and more inclusive while also protecting human rights.

The proposals in the policy brief include a commitment by governments, tech companies, and other stakeholders to refrain from propagating disinformation, a pledge by governments to guarantee a free, independent, and plural media landscape with strong protection for journalists, and a commitment from digital platforms to make sure all products take into account safety, privacy, and transparency, and more.

Earning from disinformation

“Disinformation and hate should not generate maximum exposure and massive profits,” Guterres said. When asked how confident he is that tech companies and governments will take steps to make the digital ecosystem safer, he said that it is a “constant battle” as they are dealing with “businesses that generate massive profits”.

“The problem is that the present business model prioritizes engagement in relation to privacy, truth, and the human rights of people,” the UN chief explained.

The policy brief addressed this issue, saying “disinformation is also big business,” as some public relations firms, contracted by some states, political figures, and private sectors, are “key sources of false and misleading content”.

The policy brief is the latest in a series of 11 reports intended to inform discussions ahead of the Sustainable Development Goals Summit in September.

Pope Francis on disinformation

Pope Francis has already addressed the problem of misinformation in his encyclical Fratelli tutti, stating that the digital realm has the capability to employ subtle and invasive mechanisms for the “manipulation of consciences and the democratic process,” consequently facilitating the “spread of fake news and false information.”

The Declaration of Human Fraternity drafted and presented by Nobel laureates on Saturday, 10 June, also stated, “Let us cease the manipulation of technology and AI. Let us prioritize fraternity over technological development so that it can permeate through it.”

In his Message for the first World Meeting on Human Fraternity, the Pope also stressed that “brothers and sisters are the anchors of truth in the stormy sea of conflicts that spread falsehood.”

Amid misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech proliferating in the digital space, the UN said that strengthening information integrity is an “urgent priority for the international community.”

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13 June 2023, 12:06