3 December 2020

Opportunities and Benefits of Digital Transformation

In 2012, the World Economic Forum observed that “by analysing patterns from mobile phone usage, a team of researchers in San Francisco is able to predict the magnitude of a disease outbreak half way around the world”.1 Most countries failed to realize the significance of this point, however, and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic left them scrambling to develop track-and-trace applications.

There is now a much wider understanding of the key role of advanced technologies such as informatics and artificial intelligence (AI) in delivering solutions for the management of pandemics. These include tracking possibly infected persons; contact tracing; the targeted delivery of health care; and the ability to link across databases to elicit important patterns, such as health status and recent travel history.

Clearly, these measures can be effective. A study conducted by Oxford University in April 2020 found that if just 56 per cent of a country's population used a tracking app, it could largely contain the COVID-19 epidemic.

The problem, however, is that this approach raises concerns over privacy, which is why it has had a mixed reception in Western democracies. One particularly important issue is whether personal information is stored externally rather than on a person’s phone. So, it is important to take account of both the technical feasibility and the social acceptability of certain approaches.

Economic choices are equally important. The pandemic caused an astonishingly rapid migration to online teaching and education, working, meeting and conferencing, administration, shopping and socializing. News, information, entertainment, medical advice and almost all other services became more prevalent online. The change is probably now irreversible, as many businesses, government agencies, universities, retailers and individuals have experienced the efficiency gains and cost reductions of a far more distributed way of operating.

Technological convergence, which started some years before the pandemic, created the framework for this current transformation. The disruption began in the communications sector, which had once been shaped exclusively by elites in the broadcasting and print industries. It is now characterized by a diffusion of power, which has given rise to citizen journalists, Facebookers, Tweeters, bloggers and vloggers. News, information and entertainment are therefore no longer the sole provinces of traditional content creators and distributors. The average person is now both consumer and creator of content and is able to share her or his perspective and world view from any connected village in any part of the globe.

The Challenges of Digital Transformation

As the population shifts to a greater reliance on online sources, it becomes more susceptible to harmful content. Part of this has been made more manifest by propaganda that incites racism, conspiracy theories, violence and radicalization. However, some of this is much more subtle and includes the way that AI algorithms segregate humanity into “bubbles” where dissenting views are no longer heard. Over time, this can undermine the basis for shared values and tolerance in a society, tearing at the fabric of democracy itself.

The difficulty that citizens have in distinguishing between fake news (which will soon be compounded by “deep fakes”) and reliable sources of information creates what the United Nations Secretary-General describes as a “trust deficit disorder”.

The World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) has called attention to the role of AI in the selection of information and news that people read, the music they listen to and the decisions they make, as well as their political interaction and engagement. Just prior to the pandemic, the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation observed that we are “delegating more decisions to intelligent systems, from how to get to work to what to eat for dinner”.2 Underlying this point is a concern that the AI systems used by technology companies are “black boxes” that open an information chasm between the technology companies and everybody else, including policymakers and regulators.3

Information is being created, distributed and amassed on an unprecedented scale, but most people have no knowledge of when, or the nature or extent to which information about them is being stored, access and shared. This gap is one of the most pressing concerns in our transition to a world in which people are developing deeper and closer relationships of trust with “smart” devices that are controlled by AI. David Leslie of the Alan Turing Institute points out: “As with any new and rapidly evolving technology, a steep learning curve means that mistakes and miscalculations will be made and that both unanticipated and harmful impacts will inevitably occur. AI is no exception.”4

The difficulty that citizens have in distinguishing between fake news (which will soon be compounded by “deep fakes”) and reliable sources of information creates what the United Nations Secretary-General describes as a “trust deficit disorder”.5 For example, as a result of the increasing reliance on AI-generated trending topics, the World Health Organization had to battle an “infodemic” alongside COVID-19 because many people at risk of contracting the virus were unaware of how much information about the pandemic was incorrect, deliberately misleading or malicious. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation reported a four-fold increase in the volume of cyberfraud; scammers took advantage of the crisis and offered fake advice on COVID-19 to induce recipients to click on their links, which allowed them to download malware and capture personal and financial information.

H.E. Mr. E. Courtenay Rattray, Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the United Nations, 25 September 2020.  ©NY Head Shots

Other increasingly pressing concerns include the concentration of the ownership of platforms, the millions of people left behind who are unconnected or lack the digital skills to be competitive, and the fact that most media regulatory frameworks now lag far behind in the new world of accelerating technological change. For example, most regulation still operates exclusively at the national level, even though local firms are now competing with vastly bigger and largely unregulated foreign providers.

Given that the volume of material now uploaded every minute far outpaces the ability of most regulators to monitor more than a fraction of the harmful content, a key part of the solution is to place more reliance on citizens. Regulators need to take on a new role in ensuring that citizens can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to fully utilize digital resources while guarding against malicious, harmful and inappropriate content.

The Mandate for Media and Information Literacy

The purpose of media and information literacy (MIL) is to empower the users of technology through continuous learning and knowledge acquisition about the functions of media; the mechanisms for content creation and distribution; media effects; the rights of persons to information and expression; the responsibilities of those who use, mediate and control media; and the ethical design and use of new and emerging technologies.

It is particularly important that people understand the role of the AI systems with which they will interact, and that there are ethical considerations and expectations surrounding the use of such systems. They must be alert to the possibility of media manipulation and signs of the penetration of social media by terrorist or criminal networks. Consumers of digital content must also be able to identify and respond to risks such as cyberbullying, revenge porn, internet addiction and other problematic internet use.

To advance MIL, regulators and policymakers should work with content creators, civil society, and platform and network operators to encourage the development of faster and more reliable fact-checking, higher standards and trustworthiness in journalism, and the special promotion of MIL programmes that focus on disaffected youth to help prevent radicalization and recruitment by criminal and terrorist organisations.


In order to protect democracy, the transition to a digital society and economy must be accompanied by a media and information literacy revolution. This cause would be greatly advanced were the United Nations General Assembly to provide its imprimatur by declaring 24 to 31 October as Global Media and Information Literacy (MIL) Week. This would be in keeping with a similar designation made in 2019 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization General Conference, which unanimously adopted a resolution on the matter.



1 World Economic Forum, “Big data, big impact: New possibilities for international development” (Geneva, 2012), p. 3. Available at http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_TC_MFS_BigDataBigImpact_Briefing_2012.pdf.

2 The Age of Digital Interdependence, Report of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation (New York, 2019), p.17. Available at https://www.un.org/en/pdfs/DigitalCooperation-report-for%20web.pdf.

3 Urs Gasser and Virgilio A.F. Almeida, “A layered model for AI governance”, IEEE Internet Computing, vol. 21, No. 6 (November, December 2017), p. p. 58–62. Available at https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/34390353.

4 David Leslie, Understanding artificial intelligence ethics and safety: A guide for the responsible design and implementation of AI systems in the public sector” (London, The Alan Turing Institute, 2019), p. 3. Available at https://www.turing.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2019-06/understanding_artificial_intelligence_ethics_and_safety.pdf.

The Age of Digital Interdependence, Report of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, p. 18.

The UN Chronicle is not an official record. It is privileged to host senior United Nations officials as well as distinguished contributors from outside the United Nations system whose views are not necessarily those of the United Nations. Similarly, the boundaries and names shown, and the designations used, in maps or articles do not necessarily imply endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.