Delegates in Information Committee Call for Expanded United Nations Multilingual Communications Strategy to End Rapid Spread of Disinformation Worldwide
The Committee on Information continued its annual session today, as delegates decried the epidemic of disinformation spreading around the world faster than the COVID-19 virus and tasked the United Nations with strengthening multilingual strategic communications to inoculate populations against this harmful trend.
“Misinformation and disinformation have amplified into the mainstream,” observed Mohammad Ali Jardali (Lebanon), making the distribution of factual, timely, science-based and multilingual information more important than ever. He described the waves of misinformation and disinformation that have emerged since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest being that vaccines alter one’s DNA — a point that speaks to the ease and speed with which falsehoods spread within countries, especially when offered by influential figures. He called on the private sector — especially media giants — Governments and individuals themselves to address this problem as a prerequisite for enabling sustainable development, without prejudice to the principles of independent media and free information.
He also advocated for coordinating policies between the public and private sectors, raising awareness and empowering people. Welcoming United Nations efforts to counter these trends through the sharing of timely, relevant and multilingual information — notably through the “Verified” campaign — he underscored Lebanon’s commitment to fighting the “infodemic” while also protecting the right to information, opinion and free access thereto.
Maria Zakharova (Russian Federation) similarly emphasized the dangers of disinformation, complicated further when these rights of free expression are compromised. The primary problem the international community currently faces is that the Internet — rather than being a space for free, uncensored discussion — has been monopolized by giants in the West who violate the principles of freedom of expression. The administrators of some of the world’s biggest media outlets restrict, block or delete content posted online, and a group of media oligarchs from certain States use censorship and discrimination for commercial goals, thereby creating fewer spaces for free expression, contrary to the democratic values of the Internet space. She pointed out that even legitimately elected Heads of State can be restricted from participating in online discussions.
This situation, she continued, can lead to increased disputes between States, and the fact that certain parties and journalists are not following key standards results in a degradation of journalistic ethics and undermines media’s status as a reliable source of public information to instead pursue dubious goals. She called on the Secretary-General — who has himself underscored the ills of the infodemic — to address this issue, particularly ensuring that vaccination against COVID-19 does not become a political issue or a source of competition between countries. She also addressed speculation about fictional problems with the freedom of expression in Crimea — which is “part of Russia” — and said that Ukrainian authorities persecute media not to their liking and harass correspondents while Ukrainian journalists carry out provocative operations.
Saeed Khatibzadeh (Iran), associating himself with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, also took issue with countries using their monopoly on modern communication technologies to distort and fabricate realities in the developing world and urged the United Nations to help end this harmful trend. “Placing information and communications technologies at the service of development in a fair and just manner is a must,” he stressed, calling on the Department to increase its awareness-raising efforts. He likewise condemned the misuse of these technologies, while more broadly calling on the Department to inform the international community on how unilateral coercive measures negatively impact the pandemic response of affected countries.
Turning to the climate of intolerance towards Islam and Muslims in some parts of the world — advanced by media outlets and bigoted rhetoric by Western political figures — he said it is high time for the international community to condemn these practices and work to prevent this human rights violation against Muslims. The Department must continue to promote respect for all cultures, religions and civilizations and draw attention to the serious implications of growing Islamophobia. He also encouraged the Secretariat to ensure the issuance of media products in all six official United Nations languages as well as non-official languages, including Persian, which is spoken by 100 million people.
Other delegates also exhorted the United Nations and its Department of Global Communications to increase linguistic diversity across its media footprint so that people around the world can better understand the Organization’s goals and how it works to achieve them. Each language, they stressed, is subject to its own nuances and original content — rather than translated material — is preferable to ensuring the Organization’s priorities resonate across the linguistic and cultural diversity of its worldwide audience.
Kacou Houadja Léon Adom (Côte D’Ivoire), speaking for the Group of Francophone Ambassadors, said that multilingualism is the foundation of effective multilateralism, as the work of international bodies hinges on dialogue and negotiation. Further, information and communication directly impact the ongoing fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and are key tools in combating disinformation and hate speech. Given this reality, he stressed that citizens of every country should have the same opportunity to access information in the six official languages of the United Nations. The Department must ensure that all strategies and informational documents it develops in response to the aforementioned threats are fully available in these languages. Noting that language impacts the substance and policy of work, he said that the Secretariat must not only translate its work into the six official languages, but also produce content in other languages to reflect the diversity of culture and thought among its global audience.
He further urged the Secretariat to ensure a balanced use of the six official languages on its website — bridging the gap between the use of English and the other five languages — in order to facilitate wider understanding of the United Nations work. To leave no one behind in this regard, he stressed the importance of paying appropriate attention to traditional means of communication — television, radio and print — and called for increased support for United Nations Radio broadcasting in both official and local languages. Welcoming activities designed to celebrate the six official languages, he underscored the importance of ensuring that related communications material — such as banners, videos and logos — is broadcast around the world in more than just one language, adding that financial constraints should not hinder the pursuit of parity among languages within the Organization.
Speaking in his national capacity and aligning himself with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, he said that promoting greater understanding of and increased support for United Nations principles, objectives and missions through sound communication and reliable information is vital to the Organization’s efforts. The current, unprecedented health situation has brought with it the spread of fake news and disinformation, and viral publications spread faster than the virus itself at a time when humanity needs credible information. He praised the Department’s urgent tackling of the COVID-19 crisis through awareness-raising campaigns and the measures it took to ensure continuity of services despite the difficult health situation. Stressing that the nature of the United Nations work must reach more people — especially the youth — he said that platforms like the internet and social media are essential for reaching a broader audience. He added, however, that a happy medium between new and traditional communications technology must be found to ensure that the United Nations is using all available tools to make its voice increasingly heard across diverse languages and cultures.
Also detailing areas for improvement was Patricia Herdt, International Organization of the Francophonie, who described the use of multilingualism at the United Nations as “a work in progress”. Multilingualism directly impacts multilateral action by improving results, especially in responding to a health crisis and tackling misinformation. She commended the vision developed by the Under-Secretary-General, as well as the dissemination of information by the Meetings Coverage Section and the United Nations Information Centres, while more broadly pointing to the use of Official Days as reminders about the importance of linguistic diversity. Spotlighting the need to produce more content in the six official United Nations languages, she said translation is no substitute for the production of original content.
Language conveys “a way of understanding the world and owning solutions for one’s own future,” she continued. It must be incorporated into strategic plans through an equitable allocation of budget across workstreams. She went on to stress that the minimum standards for multilingualism on United Nations websites — developed by the Department — are not consistently applied throughout the Secretariat. This is also seen in social media content, which is mainly produced in English.
Diyana Shaista Tayob (South Africa), aligning herself with the Group of 77 and China, further underscored the benefits of a multilingual approach to communications, emphasizing the critical role that United Nations Information Centres play in promoting greater understanding of and support for the Organization’s aims and activities. The Information Centres in Cairo, Mexico City and Praetoria — cities with high concentrations of media outlets — develop and implement communication plans to promote the Organization’s priority themes in a way that resonates in their respective regions. She said that the network of Information Centres is the main vehicle through which the United Nations reaches out to the world, translating information into local languages, engaging opinion-makers and placing articles by senior United Nations officials in national media. During a time when misinformation causes fear, panic and instability, the Information Centres help to restore calm and raise awareness by “giving global messages a local accent” and bringing the United Nations closer to the people it serves.
Turning to the digital divide, she said that growth, productivity gains and human development will be determined by levels of integration into the digital economy, but certain people — like the aged, people with disabilities and those living in rural areas — have been left behind. She called on the international community to do more to help developing countries close the connectivity gap to ensure that awareness of the United Nations work reaches more people across all regions.
The Committee on Information will next meet at a date and time to be announced in the Journal.