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UN launches global initiative to protect cyber space

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United Nations under-secretary-general for global communications, Melissa Fleming.
United Nations under-secretary-general for global communications, Melissa Fleming.

The United Nations (UN) is inviting people across the globe to join its new initiative to fight the spread of hate speech and fake news online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Verified initiative wants to create an army of “digital first responders” responsible for increasing trusted and accurate information surrounding the crisis.

The UN says the initiative is aimed at delivering trusted information, life-saving advice and stories from the best of humanity and is also inviting the public to help counter the spread of COVID-19 misinformation by sharing fact-based advice with their communities.

The initiative comes as governments worldwide have stepped up efforts to curb the spread of fake news.

In SA, government has ramped up its capacity to monitor and respond to misinformation and fake news during the national pandemic lockdown and beyond. A hi-tech monitoring and evaluation process has been put in place to assess complaints and reports from the media, the public and other sectors of society, with the ability to take down fake news items on a range of platforms.

Cases are then reported to police for investigation and prosecution.

The UN says it wants people around the world to become “information volunteers” and share UN-verified, science-based content, which it says will keep their families and communities safe and connected.

Under Verified, information will be provided around three themes: science – to save lives; solidarity – to promote local and global cooperation; and solutions – to advocate for support for populations that have been impacted by COVID-19.

“We cannot cede our virtual spaces to those who traffic in lies, fear and hate,” says UN secretary-general António Guterres.

“Misinformation spreads online, in messaging apps and person-to-person. Its creators use savvy production and distribution methods. To counter it, scientists and institutions like the United Nations need to reach people with accurate information they can trust.”

Verified will be led by the UN’s Department of Global Communications, in collaboration with Purpose, a social mobilisation organisation, and is supported by the IKEA Foundation and Luminate.

Melissa Fleming, UN under-secretary-general for global communications, says the organisation is moving beyond simple guidelines, like “stay at home” or “wear a mask”.

Explaining why they are launching the initiative, Fleming says, in many countries, misinformation is surging across digital channels, impeding the public health response and stirring unrest.

“There are disturbing efforts to exploit the crisis to advance nativism or to target minority groups, which could worsen as the strain on societies grows, and the economic and social fallout kicks in.

“We are seeing a rise in hate and stigmatisation, and expect a further increase in the targeting of particular groups.

“Social media platforms have committed to taking down or warning against dubious information, and directing users to the World Health Organisation and national health Web sites. But this is not enough, particularly because the most pernicious misinformation and conspiracy content spreads via messaging apps, peer-to-peer,” she says.

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