Is fake news more dangerous than climate change?

The World Economic Forum has identified the spread of misinformation as the top global risk for the next two years. It is time to tackle this digital danger

Images created with the use of AI show a fictitious skirmish between former US president Donald Trump and New York City police officers on March 23 last year. The highly detailed images, which are not real, were produced using a sophisticated and widely accessible image generator. AP
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It is troubling to think that out of all the threats to international stability identified by the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report released on Wednesday, the top one – the spreading of misinformation and disinformation – is something that can be carried out by anyone with a smartphone.

The term “fake news” – originally a 19th-century construction – was revived for its modern run during the turbulent US presidential campaign of 2016. Since then, the technology needed to manipulate images, video and audio to create convincing phonies has advanced so much that it’s now possible for anyone with a basic level of digital know-how to create and share bogus information.

This growing wave of easily generated deception comes at a critical moment. Dozens of countries will hold elections over the next 12 months, an exercise in democracy that will involve billions of voters making life-changing choices. The WEF report notes that “the widespread use of misinformation and disinformation, and tools to disseminate it, may undermine the legitimacy of newly elected governments”. A world facing myriad interconnected problems cannot afford a collection of new administrations that are distracted from governing by having to continually prove the integrity of their mandate.

The malign influence of fake news is not confined to electoral politics. It can distort and misdirect the conversation about many more of the other critical threats identified by the 1,500 experts who contributed to the WEF report. These include extreme weather, societal polarisation, cyber threats and even armed conflict between states. Manipulated, subjective “truths” that are rapidly spread on powerful social media platforms can have an explosive effect on particularly divisive issues, such as migration. They also reinforce individuals’ biases and in extreme cases can trap them in irrational, solipsistic echo chambers.

And it is not just the naïve or the perennially online who are vulnerable to misinformation designed to distort the narrative on critical events. In June 2022, it was reported that the mayors of several European cities, including Berlin and Vienna, were duped into holding video calls with a deepfake of Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion who is now the mayor of Kyiv.

If experienced politicians can be manipulated, then it bodes ill for societies that largely receive their news and information online. This increases the urgency of finding ways to counter fake news, but what is to be done? Steps to encourage people to develop deeper, critical thinking are important, as are recommendations to pause before sharing, to evaluate sources and to check the facts. But these are strategies that require time to take root and become habitual. In a fraction of the same time, a doctored or misleading story can be shared from a smartphone around the world.

The medium and means of transmission is where the focus should be. This means the onus is on tech companies to up their game when it comes to countering the fake news that travels on their networks. Increased investment in fact-checking teams and tools, improved moderation, and more effective removal policies should all be on the agenda. Emerging AI products that are being developed to rapidly detect manipulated audio and video deserve more support.

But underpinning these concrete steps should be an understanding at the corporate level that being home to a deluge of fake and misleading information erodes a company’s reputation and, ultimately, is bad for business.

In addition, governments that value their cohesion and stability have their role to play too, but this is not a call for mass regulation or censorship. It means developing and implementing policies that empower citizens with digital literacy to help them develop better online habits. Imposing penalties on companies or platforms that host fake news is another way to curtail misinformation.

The WEF is right to prioritise this digital menace and no-one can now claim they are unaware of the problem. Nevertheless, misinformation continues to spread online and it is too late to find a way to comprehensively defeating it before this year’s many elections. The real challenge will be to find a way to effectively fight it in the years ahead. Sadly, this is a problem that isn’t going anywhere.

Published: January 11, 2024, 3:00 AM