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U.N. targets online hate and lies with new information integrity principles

Some 80% of U.N. staff survey respondents believe harmful information endangers them and communities they serve.

The United Nations introduced its Global Principles for Information Integrity, urging governments, tech companies and others to combat the spread of misinformation, disinformation and hate speech online. 

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, presenting the principles at U.N. headquarters, warned of a world increasingly shaped by digital distortions and the frenetic adoption of artificial intelligence. He cited conflicts, the rapid rise of AI-boosted capabilities, and state-run disinformation campaigns as fueling unreliable and harmful information systems that threaten global stability, democracies and human rights.

"Threats to information integrity are not new, but they are proliferating and expanding with unprecedented speed on digital platforms, supercharged by AI technologies," Guterres said. "Science, facts, human rights, public health and climate action are under attack."

The principles focus on five key areas: societal trust and resilience, independent media, healthy incentives, transparency and research, and public empowerment.

Central to them is a call for revamping tech platforms' business models, which Guterres said prioritize engagement ahead of truth. "All the research that was done proves that with most of the present business models, false things, especially if they are scandalous, appeals to intolerance and to hate speech, tend to have a much stronger engagement, and that algorithms are based on that," he said. "Stop monetizing harmful content."

The U.N. chief emphasized how these systems disproportionately affect vulnerable groups, including 2.6 billion people without internet access. The principles will serve as a resource for U.N. member nations ahead of September's Summit of the Future, where global digital cooperation is expected to be a key topic.

Online misinformation has fueled real-world violence, as seen in Myanmar during the Rohingya genocide. Similar patterns of harmful online content continue to stoke religious violence in countries like India. Disinformation campaigns have also been observed in conflicts like those in Gaza and Ukraine, where false or misleading information is used to shape public opinion and justify military actions.

"Opaque algorithms push people into information bubbles and reinforce prejudices including racism, misogyny and discrimination of all kinds," Guterres said, adding that women, refugees, migrants and minorities are targets. "No one should be at the mercy of an algorithm they don't control."

'The truth, in the end, always wins'

Melissa Fleming, U.N. undersecretary-general for global communications, highlighted risks posed by AI-generated deep fakes and false narratives as they blur the already tenuous line between real and false information.

"There's huge concern," Fleming said. "The ease with which through these tools that are easy to access, quite cheap and where, again, coming back to the individual, the user, the person online, are now unable to distinguish between whether that is the actual statement of a politician, or it wasn't."

The principles call for AI developers to prioritize "safety by design" and recommend that platforms clearly label AI-generated content or remove it entirely if it is harmful or misleading. Fleming urged AI companies to "not make the same mistakes that social media companies did."

The U.N. has taken active steps to combat disinformation beyond issuing guidelines, launching the "Verified" initiative during the COVID-19 pandemic to deliver trusted information. The program is now being adapted to address climate misinformation, particularly campaigns fuelled by "significant investments" by fossil fuel companies, Fleming said.

Guterres urged governments to "commit to creating and maintaining a free, viable, independent, and plural media landscape," calling for strong protections for journalists and regulations upholding human rights. There is no enforcement mechanism for the U.N. guidelines.

But he urged "very rigorous" regulations to protect kids online.

U.N. agencies themselves have been disinformation targets. The Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA has faced Israeli claims of compromised neutrality and Hamas support since Oct. 7. The E.U., U.S. and others found no evidence supporting the claims and still back UNRWA.

Guterres called such attacks a "tsunami of falsehoods," citing false claims in Israeli digital ad campaigns that he never condemned Hamas. "I have condemned them 102 times, 51 of them in formal speeches, the others in different social platforms," he said. "The truth, in the end, always wins."

The principles are intended to help bolster democratic processes, public health, and social cohesion. The U.N. warns that false and hateful online content fuels prejudice and violence, exacerbates divisions and conflicts, demonizes minorities, and compromises election integrity.

"When information integrity is targeted, so is democracy – which depends on a shared, fact-based perception of reality," Guterres said.