The digital age has ushered in an era of unprecedented connectivity, allowing people across the world to share ideas and opinions in almost real time. It has also been characterised by the spread of disinformation.
This is clear when examining nearly all the major issues facing the world today.
For instance, the rise of the Internet and digital technologies brought the promise of greater democratization by providing an unprecedented ability to share information. Today’s reality, however, more resembles the digital dystopia that the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report warned of nearly a decade ago. In many countries, online disinformation purposefully created and curated abroad is circulating freely, undermining those countries’ political stability.
Democratic institutions are also coming under pressure as disinformation increasingly fuels polarization and political violence. Today, several countries — including Brazil, Italy, Nigeria and the United States, among others — are warning that disinformation is spreading ahead of important elections.
Meanwhile, digital platforms have enabled us to share expertise and scale solutions to tackle climate change. But too often disinformation derails the discussion. In fact, in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the United Nations warned that efforts to curb climate change were being “undermined significantly” by misinformation.
Digital technologies have also supported efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic response. This includes the development of infection tracking systems and vaccination delivery. Yet disinformation has come to define the pandemic, too — so much so that the issue was dubbed a so-called infodemic.
The disinformation surrounding these issues and others has soured public discourse and stifled productive dialogues and action. It has also fuelled conspiracy theories.
Take, for example, the conspiracy theory surrounding The Great Reset, a World Economic Forum initiative that promoted the idea of rebuilding economies to be greener and fairer post-COVID-19. Since 2020, state-backed purveyors of disinformation have created and spread deliberate falsehoods about the initiative, often tying it to anti-semitic conspiracy theories about “control” over the global economy.
Claims like these are unfounded and are shared without evidence. Nonetheless, they have spread from extremist corners of the internet to the mainstream. The recent account of Russia’s disinformation campaign against a US women’s march in 2017 also shows how almost any topic can be targeted. In this case, disinformation was used to inflame divisive culture wars and shift public discourse away from policy-based discussions.
A resurgence of fact-based journalism can help stem disinformation.
Editors and reporters need to push back against politicians and political commentators who bring fringe falsehoods into the mainstream public discourse. Newsrooms should also take care to avoid misleading both-sides-ism. After all, neutrality does not mean abandoning fact-based journalism.
Moreover, fact-based journalism is vital to protecting free speech as disinformation often tarnishes forward-thinking debate. This only serves to slow down progress and undermine efforts to address urgent issues like public health and the climate crisis.
On World News Day, it is important to remember that the disinformers must not be allowed to win.
It is imperative that the free exchange of ideas and opinions proceeds unpoisoned, and that public discourse remains focused on the critical issues facing people all over the world.