The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has published its first interim report on its Disinformation and Fake News Inquiry, with its findings confirming the creeping, yet acute malaise that so many have been feeling for so long. Damian Collins, MP, Chair of the Committee, noted: “We are facing nothing less than a crisis in our democracy – based on the systemic manipulation of data to support the relentless targeting of citizens, without their consent, by campaigns of disinformation and messages of hate.”
We all know rumours and fake news are easily spread and rapidly amplified online, and they can have appalling consequences – on p3 you can read how false allegations spread on a social messaging app, have contributed to mob attacks and murders in India.
The interim report notes that murky forces have attempted to influence many elections around the world. Indeed, disinformation has been called an “active threat” and is a tactic of unconventional warfare in its use of technology to disrupt, magnify and distort our views of the truth. On p43 Ørjan Karlsson discusses such hybrid warfare and attacks.
There are even more disturbing implications to this manipulation and malign influence, as Lina Kolesnikova notes on p46. She reveals how false alarms in mass warning systems could create panic, mistrust or even galvanise specific groups into acts of civil unrest or revolution. Whether accidental or deliberate, the consequences could be dire.
Along with the documented human tragedies of this pernicious trend, the values of trust and truth are also significant casualties.
So, what can be done to counter this tsunami of disinformation and misinformation? As a start, we all need to rediscover our natural scepticism. We need to question, check facts and overcome our ingrained biases to believe what we want to believe. The Committee report is correct to say that digital literacy should become the “fourth pillar of education” alongside reading, writing and maths.
No single body can reclaim the narrative of truth and transparency alone. It behoves us all – governments, organisations, institutions, service providers, the media and, critically, individuals– to work together. Or else we risk entering an age of denialism, characterised by sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris in The Guardian as: “A dystopian vision of a world unmoored, in which nothing can be taken for granted and no one can be trusted.” And this truly would be a global crisis of epic proportions.