#OnlyTogether can we stop the spread of disinformation; democracy depends on it.

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#OnlyTogether can we stop the spread of disinformation; democracy depends on it.

By Mr Federico Mantellassi, Assistant Programme Officer, Geneva Centre for Security Policy

Democracy’s proper functioning depends on the free flow of reliable and factually correct information. Based on this information, citizens make informed political decisions to elect officials. What happens when this process is undermined? Disinformation is increasingly being used for this very purpose by malicious actors. The rise of online disinformation has the potential to wither democratic processes by challenging this pillar of democracy. Working to find strategies to counter this trend is one of the most important challenges of our time. Thankfully, there are things we can do about it.

What's the problem?

While misinformation is simply the existence of false information, disinformation is “verifiably false content that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm. Malicious actors – both domestic and foreign – have increasingly been deliberately using “disinformation campaigns” with the explicit aim of undermining democratic processes by reducing citizens' trust in traditional media and government. By flooding the Internet with false information, these campaigns hijack the democratic process, sowing confusion and chaos while increasing polarisation, often bringing what were once fringe ideas to the forefront of political discussions. The political debate becomes overcrowded with competing “facts”, conspiracy theories and extreme ideas, hindering the ability of citizens to make informed political decisions.

Disinformation therefore creates an environment where citizens no longer share the same perception of what is factual, and where rational thinking does not dissuade people from their beliefs. The 2020 US election has shown how sustained disinformation campaigns can undermine democracy. By continuously maintaining false claims regarding election fraud and the unreliability of mail-in ballots while simultaneously declaring an early victory, Donald Trump has reduced faith in the US election system. These baseless claims have brought election fraud to the forefront of the discussion, leading some to question and refuse to accept the results of the election, in some cases inciting protests outside polling stations. This has seriously put into question the peaceful transition of power that is inherent to proper democratic governance. 

How did this happen?

Lying and deceit have been around as long as we have. What makes today’s disinformation problem particularly destructive is the scale at which it can be undertaken and the accuracy with which information can be targeted at specific people and groups, dramatically increasing its impact. Digital technology and social media platforms have been at the heart of this process. More specifically, a business model that revolves around monetising a user’s attention has incentivised sensational and emotional content, facilitating its spread over more toned-down, factual content. With a large number of people relying on social media for their news, false “information” spreads at lightning speed online, much faster than truth. Additionally, by collecting an enormous amount of data on users, social media companies are able to tailor content to specific users, locking us into “content bubbles”, rarely exposing us to alternate viewpoints, and thereby increasing the impact of disinformation.

What can we do about it?

The technology that facilitates the spread of disinformation is here to stay, and overly aggressive policies aimed at controlling social media platforms could set a dangerous precedent for censorship. So, if we cannot ban social media or overly police the Internet, what can we do?

Educate: Education regarding disinformation, “fake news” and media literacy must be part of the solution. Technology isn’t going away, and we are not going to stop using it. What we can do is learn to interact and live better with it. Therefore, starting from a young age, educational programmes must teach people how to engage with online content and how to discern reliable and unreliable sources, while also teaching how news exists and circulates on social media.

Build better technology: Social media platforms today play a central role in our political lives; they must therefore also be part of the solution. Algorithms that do not reward divisive and inflammatory content exist and the technology to build social media platforms in a safer way is available. Therefore, the remodelling of such algorithms must be incentivised to reduce the impact of fictitious content online.

Bolster data-privacy legislation and norms: Solving the disinformation problem cannot only be left in the hands of private technology firms. This would only increase their influence over our political lives. Therefore, governments must put the right legislative framework in place to prevent social media companies from hoarding massive amounts of data on users. In turn, this can reduce the effectiveness of disinformation campaigns and false political advertisements by limiting their capacity to be targeted to specific users.

Adapt our online behaviour: It is also up to us, as users of the Internet, to help slow the spread of disinformation. With a constant incentive to share and produce content online, it is also up to us to stop and think about what we are sharing and producing.

Only together can we stop the spread of disinformation; democracy depends on it

 

ABOUT THIS BLOG SERIES:

As the world attempts to navigate yet another major disruption, we continue to look to one another to identify sustainable solutions and rebuild better. It is time for our world to take conscious steps towards unity and to work together so as to move beyond our preconceptions and challenge our stagnation. This #OnlyTogether blog series provides you with expert insights and the beginnings of a roadmap to a more peaceful and secure future. This blog series was launched to celebrate our 25th Anniversary, discover our 3-day event programme here.

Federico Mantellassi is an Assistant Programme Officer at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy where he works since 2018. Federico assists in the organisation of executive education activities, conducts research, and is the project coordinator of the annual Geneva Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge. Federico’s research focuses on the security and societal impact of emerging technologies, particularly Artificial Intelligence. He holds a Master’s Degree in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London, and a Bachelor’s Degree in International Studies from the University of Leiden.