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SG/SM/20474
4 December 2020

Misinformation ‘Shadow Pandemic’ on COVID-19 Risks Lives, Threatens Uptake of Vaccines, Secretary-General Warns, in Message to Web Summit

Following is UN Secretary‑General António Guterres’ message to the Web Summit, in Lisbon today:

The COVID‑19 pandemic has accelerated our dependence on digital technologies and highlighted the life‑saving benefits of connectivity.  As societies have locked down and sent people into isolation, Internet access and digital advances have kept people connected and societies running.

But the pandemic is also highlighting and exacerbating inequalities of all kinds, including the digital divide.  Those without access to digital technology — almost half the world — are denied opportunities to study, communicate, trade, work and participate in much of what is now normal life for the richer half of the world.

And for those online, connectivity has increased vulnerability to harm and abuse.  Online harassment of women and girls has increased disproportionately under COVID lockdowns while law enforcement agencies have also reported large surges in online child sexual exploitation.  The shadow pandemic of misinformation about COVID‑19 has also put health and lives at risk and threatens to reduce the uptake and effectiveness of vaccines that become available.

These online abuses can be a serious obstacle to political stability, to social and developmental progress and to our collective ability to solve major challenges.  Disinformation, the proliferation of online hate speech, and the withdrawal into social echo chambers will continue to undermine social cohesion and reduce trust in science, in institutions and in each other.  Together, as we seek to recover from the pandemic, we must learn to better curtail harmful use of digital technology and to better unleash its power as a democratizing force and an enabler.

My Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, launched in June, thus sets out a way forward to work with Governments, the private sector, civil society and academic communities to connect, respect and protect all people in the digital age.  Following the Roadmap, we are accelerating efforts to achieve universal connectivity, including through transformative United Nations projects like GIGA; scaling up digital capacity‑building mechanisms; and developing metrics and scorecards to promote digital inclusion.  We are strengthening how the United Nations addresses digital human rights and technology as well as revitalizing the Internet Governance Forum so it becomes the venue for digital cooperation discussions.

At this Summit in 2018, I called for a ban on lethal autonomous weapon systems.  I reiterate that call today.  We need effective oversight of new technologies, whether on the Web, in conflict areas or in the research laboratory, so that society can benefit from rapid development while being protected from significant risks.

This year marks the seventy‑fifth anniversary of the United Nations, and its Member States have asked me to prepare recommendations to advance our common agenda and respond to current and future challenges, one of which is ensuring we can take full advantage of new technologies to meet our common development agenda and to uphold peace, security and human rights.

That common agenda and my Roadmap are visions for our shared use of digital technologies, and I look forward to hearing your ideas for a prosperous, equitable and fair digital future.

For information media. Not an official record.