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The new information reality

Written by Jonathan Tanner

The British government has just published its report (PDF) into Russian interference in recent elections. Out of all the reactions that this will likely trigger – outrage, anger, cynicism and downplaying – surprise shouldn't be one of them. The manipulation of public narratives for political gain or private profit is rapidly becoming a permanent aspect of modern digital information ecosystems.

This is an urgent problem for democracy and, as the Covid-19 ‘infodemic’ goes to show, an equally pressing threat to development. The new reality is that uncertainty over who to trust, what to believe and why things happen is only going to grow.

The many faces of false information

Like most issues which affect billions of people, the modern digital information ecosystem is complicated. Misinformation, disinformation and malinformation (MDI) are all different problems, requiring different solutions, often lumped together under the unhelpful banner of ‘fake news’.

None of these phenomena are entirely new but digital technology provides the means for MDI to travel at lightning speed with global scale. It is now easily possible to push content and narratives through artificial networks of bot accounts or fabricated news websites. At the same time, these technologies are disrupting the business models of many traditional media organisations, with the ability of many journalists to establish truth and hold power to account weakening.

The wider threat for development

So why does MDI threaten development progress? Well, for starters it exists in many of the major public policy debates of our time. There’s good evidence for the negative impact of climate change misinformation (PDF), we all understand how marginalised groups or migrants can be falsely stigmatised and public health gains are at risk from the rise of anti-vaccination movements.

Beyond broad narratives there are very real moments of intensity which individuals, communities and societies face that create heightened vulnerability to MDI. The panic created by sudden disasters, the fear of disease, the terror of war and the uncertainty of elections are all fertile emotional grounds for MDI to spread.

Where this happens, it can negatively impact disaster recovery, lengthen outbreaks, trigger violence and deepen unrest. If you’re doubtful, just take a look at last month’s Operation Carthage report that revealed external influence campaigns targeting multiple elections in Africa, ask healthcare workers in the DRC and take a look at what Al Qaeda and others are saying about Covid-19.

Fighting back: what can we do when faced with ‘bad’ information

So what can we do about it? Again, it is complicated.

Right now, there’s a lot more that social media platforms can do by monitoring their platforms, addressing the behavioural incentives their algorithms create and perhaps introducing some friction to the process of sharing content. Even if there is progress on this, perhaps hastened by legislation like the UK’s Online Harms Bill, it may take some time for platforms to address these problems in places where major languages are not spoken. That’s why global initiatives like the Forum on Information and Democracy are much needed.

The rise of fact checking organisations like Africa Check, Full Fact and Chequeado has stemmed directly from the increasing concerns of philanthropists around securing the truth and is a useful contribution. There’s also a need to support more independent media organisations at a time when financial self-sustainability appears out of reach. A major philanthropic initiative to do just that is now being proposed but even when paired with increased coverage of MDI in established media it alone won’t be sufficient to solve the problem.

Perhaps picking apart the economics of MDI may also help to solve the problem. A recent report from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (PDF) claims the anti-vaxxer movement is worth up to $1 billion a year. Others advocate a greater focus on digital media literacy and almost everyone agrees that if politicians could start taking these issues more seriously, and avoid the Brazilian example of rushed and flawed laws that would be helpful.

We can’t go back to an analogue existence but the digital world is evolving at different speeds. Varying depths of digital penetration, levels of democratic freedom and the different roles played by radio, public authority figures and family networks mean there are in reality a of different information ecosystems, some more digital than others. In order to root out MDI it will be necessary to better understand local information ecosystems and coordinate international efforts.

We must look beyond platforms to get to the root of MDI

With this problem surfacing in so many places it can be easy to zone in on tangible entities like Russia, China, Twitter or Facebook as the root cause of the problem but this misses the point. Modern digital information ecosystems are in their infancy and so is our knowledge and understanding of how they work.

In the coming years it will be harder than ever to discern truth or reality as new generations move away from text as their primary form of communication and ‘deepfake’ video technology, powered by artificial intelligence, makes it possible to put words in the mouths of public figures.

Our ability to sort fact from fiction will depend on how quickly we are able to adapt to this new normal and break the problem of MDI down into manageable chunks. As the UN has been reminding us, for individuals this starts with being more mindful of what we share on social media. And for institutions, it will mean thinking carefully about how to communicate with legitimacy. For people living in less observed parts of the world, especially during moments of intensity, beating MDI requires recognition that this is a global issue that’s going nowhere fast.