Amid Multiple International Crises, Department of Global Communications Conveying Facts, Offering Hope, Says Under-Secretary-General, as Committee on Information Opens Session
Amid a plethora of global, overlapping crises on the United Nations agenda, the Department of Global Communications remains guided by a systematic, data‑driven approach focused on audiences and impact as it communicates facts, captures imaginations and conveys hope, its top official told the Committee on Information during the opening of the forty-fifth session today.
Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, spotlighted the worsening climate emergency, the war in Ukraine, the rise in hate speech and xenophobia, devastating disasters such as the recent earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria, the massive displacement of people around the world and the deadly fighting in Sudan to point out that the high number of overlapping crises is unfortunately the new norm. “How do we prioritize our work when we have so much to cover? How do we ‘cut through’ to inform the global public about what the Organization is doing and also at the same time build support for our values? And how do we do all that while tackling the rampant mis- and disinformation and hate speech […] that is polluting our information ecosystems?”, she asked.
Against the backdrop of such challenges, the Department’s approach remains guided by the United Nations Global Communications Strategy which calls for a systemic and data-driven method focused on audiences and impact. Rather than communicating only to raise awareness, it must capture imaginations, inspire confidence and provide examples of solutions to the world’s biggest collective problems. “We must do so in languages and on platforms that people use and understand — we must communicate the facts, while also offering hope,” she underscored.
In that regard, the Department has been finding ever more creative ways to partner with Member States, media, private sector and civil society to connect with new audiences on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), she said. Among other things, it launched the “Football for the Goals” initiative to inspire action; marked the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace with an in-person event that drew 400 people; and worked with the Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to host the third United Nations Open Science Conference.
United Nations Information Centres have also been working with local partners on the ground to organize teacher training sessions, launch television programmes and host youth forums, she continued, reporting that the SDG Publishers Compact continues to grow as does the SDG Book Club for children. The United Nations Academic Impact initiative — compromising more than 1,600 universities and colleges in over 150 countries — has notably conducted 18 online training sessions on the Global Goals for English- and Spanish-speaking audiences between January and March.
Communications around the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also include an effort to target younger audiences, she said, noting that the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth has worked alongside United Nations partners to organize the Economic and Social Council Youth Forum. In the coming months, the Department will continue to support the Secretary-General’s efforts to implement the Assembly resolution establishing of a Youth Office — an important step forward in strengthening partnerships with young people while ensuring their meaningful engagement in intergovernmental policy — and decision-making.
This same approach of partnerships is applied to climate communications, she stressed. For the launch of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent synthesis report, the Department’s social media content was amplified by 30 Goodwill Ambassadors, messengers of peace, advocates and other high-profile United Nations-affiliated influencers, reaching nearly 100 million followers. To coincide with that report’s release, the Secretary-General also launched his LinkedIn account which has already gained more than 25,000 followers. Web and climate teams meanwhile worked extensively on the Organization’s climate action site, adding new segments and features. UN Video has reinforced its coverage and the Department as a whole is partnering with digital platforms to harness their enormous reach and ensure that audiences are more likely to see accurate climate information.
The Department’s support to the 2023 Conference for the Midterm Comprehensive Review of Implementation of the United Nations Decade for Action on Water and Sanitation (2018-2028) illustrates the effectiveness of its updated, integrated approach to communications, she said. By working with the entire United Nations system, it ensured a coordinated, strategic campaign which lifted the visibility of the global water crisis and highlighted innovative solutions. Starting in mid-February, multilingual content about the Conference was posted over 400 times on social media, generating at least 450,000 separate engagements. On the Conference’s eve, the Department organized global briefings on the World Water Development Reporting to ensure extensive media coverage. And during the Conference, its Meetings Coverage Section observed higher-than-average visitor numbers, pageviews and time spent reading its many summaries.
Dealing with crises has forced a strategic planning reorientation to better anticipate crises and respond more quickly when they start to unfold. “The situations in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Haiti, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and now Sudan have each required a carefully calibrated response as those conflicts or crises have waxed or waned and as the communications imperatives have evolved,” she said.
The current extremely fluid situation in Sudan, for example, has increased the complexity of explaining the Organization’s role, as well as a United Nations perspective, especially when staff on the ground face enormous security risks. The Department’s coverage and media engagement on the war in Ukraine have focused on the humanitarian situation, human rights consequences and efforts to both bring about peace and ameliorate suffering. UN News’ Ukraine focus page — which provides updates on all angles of the Organization’s response — continues to receive significant traffic, with its explainer on the war notably attracting more than 2 million pageviews, a quarter of which came from Russian-speaking audiences.
The Department has also confronted the impacts of concerted campaigns of lies, denials and distortions. “Mis- and disinformation, along with hate speech, have become so ubiquitous that it is impossible […] not [to] have to deal with it,” she said. The United Nations is increasingly finding that its ability to fulfil its mandate is at stake and that its staff are often under direct attack, especially in the field. As resident coordinators, peace envoys and peacekeeping missions increasing turn to the Department for assistance in anticipating and combating online attacks, it has been working with other key Secretariat departments to establish a standing capacity to better respond to this problem. The Information Centre network — skilled at understanding local languages and audiences — will be a key component in that regard.
The Department’s various multilingual platforms have also stepped up their coverage, she added, noting that its flagship Verified initiative continued to pump fact-based content into the digital ecosystem in 2022. She then highlighted several of the Department’s communications campaigns and initiatives on human rights, peace and security, the Holocaust, trans-Atlantic slave trade and the annual international media seminar on peace in the Middle East, to name a few.
While multilingualism is the lifeblood of the Department’s work, finding sufficient resources to make multilingualism a reality is a challenge, she said, as is not always possible to deliver even in an age of artificial intelligence. Through additional staff resources in the 2023 budget, UN WebTV has recently launched its website in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish — complementing the existing language version and making meetings of key United Nations organs available both live and on-demand in all six official languages. Among other things, the Department began a new Urdu-language newsletter, published English and French versions of The United Nations Guide to Model United Nations and launched a new digital workflow at the UN Library which provides comprehensive analysis and metadata creation capability for UN publications, as well as parliamentary and normative documents. Through a donation from Oman, it has also continued to digitize, catalogue and selectively post items in the Organization’s historic audio-visual collection, she reported.
In opening remarks, Mohammad Aamir Khan (Pakistan), Chair of the Committee’s forty‑fifth session, noting that his country was assuming the Committee’s presidency for the second time, outlined activities undertaken by the General Assembly. Following the first-ever adoption of Assembly resolution 76/227 titled “Countering Disinformation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms” on 24 December 2021, the Group of Friends on Countering Disinformation was launched to advance the multidimensional response to stop all forms of disinformation, including in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the world facing a triple-crisis — from the pandemic and climate change to shocks to food, fuel and finance, aggravated by conflicts — he underscored the Committee’s critical role in ensuring accurate, timely information. He went on to outline topics of discussion in the upcoming days, including the media’s role in shaping public opinion, the importance of bridging the digital divide, the need to combat disinformation and hate speech and on confronting harmful or misleading content. On ensuring information integrity in the context of spreading disinformation, he said he would promote fact-based information and fight against the spread of false information. There must be intensified efforts to address problematic content and promote wider information access, including among marginalized communities, such as migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons.
He also underscored the need to confront the threat of climate change, of which the catastrophic flood in Pakistan last year and the earthquake hitting Türkiye and Syria this year are serious manifestations. Steps must be taken to end the fragmentation of the information system and address both the technological divide and developing countries’ access to reliable, factual and multilingual information. Bridging the digital divide and achieving universal connectivity by ensuring access to broadband and data for all is critical, as it will enable people to make informed decisions, participate in democratic processes and contribute to the building of inclusive, peaceful and just societies, he said, stressing: “It is the cure to the pandemic of disinformation and hate speech.”
At the outset, the Committee elected by acclamation for 2023 to 2024: Mr. Khan (Pakistan) as Chair; Ivars Liepnieks (Latvia), Vero Henintsoa Andriamiarisoa (Madagascar), Liliana Verónica Baños Muller (El Salvador) and Ludovica Murazzani (Italy) as Vice-Chairs; and Verónica Baños Muller (El Salvador) as Rapporteur.
It also approved the programme of work for its forty-fourth session and the request of Estonia to join the Committee. Members held an informal interactive meeting after the Under-Secretary-General’s statement to exchange ideas with and pose questions to the Department’s senior management.
The Committee on Information will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 25 April, to begin its general debate and consideration of the Secretary-General’s three reports on the Department of Global Communications.