On 29 June 2021, the European Union and the Antenna in Sarajevo of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe officially inaugurated the ‘Social Media 4 Peace’ project in pilot country Bosnia and Herzegovina. Discussions emphasised the powerful role that social media and ICT play in shaping socio-political realities, and the need to strengthen the resilience of civil society in the face of potentially harmful content distributed online especially content that incites hatred and violence. The lessons learnt at the local level will feed-in for the global discussion at the international level.
The increasing digitalisation of societies worldwide has led to unprecedented opportunities for the free flow of information. However, there are growing concerns about how digital communication tools have become instrumental platforms to spread harmful content with a significant impact on conflict dynamics and peace. Apart from spreading hate, social media is also increasingly used to spread disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda designed to mislead a population, as strongly noticed during the COVID-19 health crisis.
The moderation and curation rules of online, potentially harmful content is mostly discussed at the global level in a “one size fits all” fashion. Yet, the complexity of addressing possibly detrimental cyber content lies in the impossibility to define precisely the boundaries of the type of content covered irrespective of the context. This is why the project foresees to, in addition to using human rights principles as a universal baseline, take into account social, cultural, and linguistic nuances to develop and review content moderation and curation rules and tools in a localised manner.
Digital technologies, in particular social media, are not systematically used in peace-building processes; although there are few recent examples of organisations and campaigns that have successfully mobilised social media to empower people, notably the youth, to allow an inclusive dialogue on issues such as climate change. This is why the project will maximise digital technologies’ potential to promote initiatives and narratives that create incentives for peace rather than violence to become a critical element of peace building.
The 36-month ‘Social Media 4 Peace’ project is financed with €3 million investment from the EU’s Instrument Contributing to Stability and Peace. It started in January 2021 and it will run through December 2023 is conducted in 3 pilot countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Indonesia and Kenya. The overall goal of the project is to strengthen the resilience of civil society to potential harmful content spread online, in particular hate speech, which incites violence, while enhancing the promotion of peace through digital technologies, particularly social media.
As the UN Agency with the mandate to promote and protect freedom of expression, UNESCO is relying on its convening power to bring together major relevant stakeholders to pilot a dialogue gathering among others, representatives of social media platforms, of national authorities, of civil society organizations promoting freedom of expression, conflict prevention and peace building organization and conflict-affected communities.
At the project launch event on 21 June, UNESCO facilitated through its Antenna in Sarajevo a session bringing together representatives from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s authorities at the state and local levels, journalist associations, academia as well as civil society organisations active in the field of peace and reconciliation. The discussion highlighted the powerful role that social media and ICTs play in shaping socio-political realities, including their misuse as a tool to polarize society by manipulating and amplifying disinformation or by increasing hate speech and intolerance that could even fuel conflict.
“The European Union is committed to supporting programmes that encourage the use of digital technologies to promote peaceful and resilient societies. Disinformation and hate speech are not new – they are as old as mankind. But the dominance of social media has increased the speed and reach of disinformation and hate speech, and their potential to do damage.” Ambassador Johann Sattler, EU Special Representative and Head of the EU Delegation, underlined in his intervention. “We need to create spaces for collaboration between social media platforms, civil society, authorities to ensure that potential harmful content online does not fuel tensions and violence in already fragile societies.”
The project will seek to improve the understanding of the root causes, scale and impact of harmful content as well as the effectiveness of the tools to address it in the 3 pilot countries. On this basis, the project will work hard to formulate actions in the second phase to restrict harmful content in accordance with international standards for the protection of freedom of expression. The project will work with the media, fact-checkers and civil society representatives to strengthen the promotion and support of peacebuilding narratives and initiatives through digital technology and social media.
“With this project, we would like to address and explore the potential of social media and new technologies for peace and human rights, in particular freedom of expression. But also a freedom of expression as an extraordinary tool to promote respect for cultural diversity of the country, and not to use it as an excuse for attacking others of different cultural, ethnic, religious or even political belonging.” Sinisa Sesum, Head of UNESCO Antenna in Sarajevo, stressed.
Social Media 4 Peace is aligned with UNESCO’s overall strategy to combat disinformation by fostering the information as a public good and strengthening the transparency of the internet ecosystem. The project will also contribute to the achievement of SDG 16, to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies and to the UN Plan of Action on Hate Speech launched by UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez to combat xenophobia, racism and intolerance online.