If left unchecked, the tide of fake news could undermine the foundations of governing institutions, rendering them ineffective and untrustworthy Image Credit: Shutterstock

In this digital era, the rampant spread of fake news stands as a pressing and profound peril to democracies and societies across the globe.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest report, “Global Risks 2024: At a turning point,” raises a red flag about the dangers posed by AI-driven misinformation and disinformation, highlighting the serious implications of this crisis. Even extreme weather induced by climate change ranks as the second most pressing short-term risk, following fake news.

The WEF report offers an exploration of how misinformation and disinformation are proliferating, particularly their potential to disrupt elections and deepen societal divisions. It addresses the complex challenges in regulating synthetic content and the possibility of using misinformation as a tool for societal upheaval and political domination.

There’s a growing concern about the erosion of individual rights and the spread of arbitrary digital practices. This phenomenon is not a distant worry but a present-day reality, already influencing crucial elections and moulding public opinion worldwide.

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Stoking fear in public

While fake news is not new, its reach and impact have escalated due to technological advancements and divisive global power politics. The advent of social media and advanced AI technologies has enabled misinformation to spread more rapidly and appear more convincing, leading to echo chambers that reinforce polarisation.

The repercussions extend beyond the digital realm, manifesting in real-world actions that can destabilise societies and undermine democratic processes.

In the 2016 and 2020 US Presidential elections, where foreign interference, involving a strategic misinformation campaign, was found to have a significant impact.

Similarly, the Brexit vote in the UK was marred by false narratives that swayed public opinion. These are not isolated incidents; they represent a pattern where major democratic exercises are vulnerable to manipulation through falsehoods.

Fake news was rampant during the recent presidential elections in Brazil and France, largely spread through social media platforms. In the election in Kenya, false reports and doctored images and videos were disseminated to discredit candidates and stoke fears among the population.

The threat posed by fake news extends to the very integrity of elections, misleading voters, eroding trust in the electoral system, and compromising the fundamental principles of democracy.

OPN Fake News
Misinformation is consistently being disseminated through fake news stories on TikTok and WhatsApp

Creation of false information

Fake news stories through TikTok and WhatsApp are regularly spreading disinformation about the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. In nations such as India, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Brazil, misinformation campaigns have been linked to communal violence and political upheaval. The rapid spread of fabricated stories on platforms like WhatsApp has led to mob violence, lynching, and riots, posing a grave threat to social harmony and the rule of law.

The WEF report rightly emphasises the distinction between misinformation (false or inaccurate information) and disinformation (deliberately misleading or biased information). Both are tools in the arsenal of those looking to disrupt genuine political processes.

The use of AI in generating deepfakes and sophisticated fake narratives adds a new dimension to this challenge. What’s worrying is not just the creation of false information but its capacity to blend seamlessly into our daily information consumption.

The year 2024 is pivotal, with over 64 countries and the European Union, representing about half of the global population, poised for national elections.

These elections, crucial to countries comprising 60 per cent of the global GDP, face the looming threat of misinformation and disinformation campaigns, which can sway voter opinions, challenge the legitimacy of election processes, and incite violence.

Read more by Prof Ashok Swain

Disrupting democratic processes

The erosion of trust in traditional information sources exacerbates this crisis. In an increasingly polarised society, individuals tend to seek news that aligns with their biases, creating a breeding ground for fake news to thrive. Misinformation and disinformation serve to fragment societal cohesion, providing fertile ground for far-right groups to expand their influence by deepening divides, promoting extremist ideologies, and disrupting democratic processes.

In countries experiencing democratic transitions or peace processes, the impact of fake news can be particularly devastating. Far-right groups manipulate information to derail these processes, leading to violence and distrust. The use of fake news by these groups extends beyond their borders, interfering in the democratic processes of other nations, skewing electoral outcomes, and straining international relations.

Combating fake news is a complex task that requires a multifaceted approach, including media literacy campaigns, stringent fact-checking, and responsible journalism. Social media platforms need to take accountability for their content and develop algorithms that discourage echo chambers. Moreover, governments and international bodies need to collaborate to tackle the transnational nature of this threat.

The WEF’s call for global cooperation in addressing these challenges is both timely and crucial. As the world confronts the intricacies of misinformation and disinformation, one must remember the stakes: the future of democracies and the integrity of our societies.

If left unchecked, the tide of fake news could undermine the foundations of governing institutions, rendering them ineffective and untrustworthy. It is imperative that the international community takes decisive action now to protect our societies from this insidious threat.