UNESCO fights harmful content with a community-led initiative

On 28-29 June, UNESCO in collaboration with the Center for Digital Society (CfDS) held a public conference and a roundtable discussion (closed session) in Jakarta on “Addressing Gaps in Regulating Harmful Content Online”. These were organized within the framework of the UNESCO project Social Media 4 Peace, in an attempt to respond to the rising hate speech and disinformation globally that have contributed to divisions in society and real-world violence.

The two-day event brought together a diverse group of participants – 260 in total on site and via Zoom and YouTube. On the first day, representatives of civil society, academia, social media platforms and the government discussed the findings of the research commissioned by UNESCO to CfDS on Indonesia’s regulatory framework concerning online harmful content. The Phase I of this research showed that there is no distinction between illegal and harmful content, and the definition of what constitutes “illegal” is too broad and ambiguous, ultimately endangering freedom of expression.

Mr Deden Imadudin, representative of the Ministry of Communication and Informatics, encouraged civil society organizations to contribute to the revision of the existing 2008 law on Electronic Information and Transactions, which has been submitted for discussion to the Indonesian House of Representatives.

The Phase II of CfDS research, which included focus group discussions with local communities (religious minorities, LGBTQIA+ groups, pro-democracy activists, etc.), in turn demonstrated that the existing regulatory framework and content moderation practices have negatively affected the life and work of these communities. They often feel powerless in relation to social media platforms, both in terms of the hate speech directed against them and when their content is misjudged and taken down, while actual harmful content may remain online.

The second day roundtable discussion served to discuss practical steps for setting up a multistakeholder coalition for social media, as a way to empower civil society groups while also combatting hate speech and disinformation on platforms. This is a voluntary-compliance mechanism, whereby civil society can establish a direct communication line with social media platforms and advise on content moderation practices. The coalition can also help raise awareness about international standards of freedom of expression and access to information and promote media and information literacy among NGOs, youth groups and local communities.

Dr. Sherly Haristya, an independent researcher, who authored the report commissioned by UNESCO to Article-19 on the uses of social media and content moderation practices in Indonesia, emphasized the key elements for the success of the multistakeholder coalition. “The participating civil society organizations need to share the same vision, have legitimacy and actively engage in dialogue with both the tech industry and the authorities. The multistakeholder coalition should be inclusive, transparent and accountable with a clear decision making process,” cautioned Haristya.

Meta Indonesia, which was present on both days, welcomed efforts by civil society to help create a more peaceful and safer cyberspace. Noudhy Valdryno, Public Policy Manager, shared the current mechanisms for combatting hate speech and disinformation on Facebook – by blocking the use, taking down the content or limiting its distribution. He emphasized the challenge of effectively curbing harmful content, as the platform is being used everyday by billions of users with diverse social and culture backgrounds. Dara Nasution, the Politics and Government Outreach Associate Manager at Meta, spoke of independent third-party fact checkers, certified through the non-party International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), with which Meta cooperates to review and respond to hate speech and disinformation.

Dr Novi Kurnia, the Principal Investigator Researcher at CfDS, explained that the research result on regulation of harmful and illegal content in Indonesia shows there is no differentiation between illegal content and harmful content in regulation. Definitions are too broad, ambiguous, and vulnerable to misuse. This condition has an impact on the practice of content moderation among vulnerable groups such as LGBTI community, religious minority groups and pro-democracy activists. In response to this, CfDS with the support of UNESCO, launched the Anti-Harmful Content Platform during the conference. “This resource is a step towards empowering citizens to share their experiences of harmful content on a variety of six social media platforms and one complaint platform on harmful content developed by MOCI , and it will ultimately contribute to future research and monitoring,” she said.

At the conference, Ms Valerie Julliand, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Indonesia, affirmed the UN’s commitment to combatting hate speech, as recently demonstrated by the celebration of the first-ever International Day dedicated to it. “A key UN initiative towards countering hate speech and contributing to the SDG 16 on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions is UNESCO’s Social Media 4 Peace project,” she said.

Social Media 4 Peace is a three-year UNESCO project, funded by the European Union. It aims to strengthen the resilience of societies to potentially harmful content, particularly hate speech and disinformation, while protecting freedom of expression and promoting peacebuilding narratives through social media. Apart from Indonesia, it being implemented in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kenya.