Last month big tech bosses were summoned to a US congressional hearing, held virtually. They were questioned about unrest in Washington DC’s Capitol Hill on 6 January and on the escalating issue of how false information online can fuel extremism.
The term false information has two dimensions: misinformation and disinformation. While the former often refers to misleading or inaccurate content shared innocently, the latter is generally characterised by an intent to cause harm through malicious untruths. False information online presents challenges for all countries, not just the US, and has been exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.
With some countermeasures prone to unintended, if not damaging consequences, addressing the issue in the long run is expect to need collaboration across the public and private sectors.
The spread of false information online: why is this a growing concern?
Society has long grappled with the dissemination of false information, however the arrival of the internet has proved an accelerant, with one Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study indicating so-called fake news is able to permeate the digital world faster than real news. Online channels are efficient instruments to spread false information for a number of reasons:
- the scale of online communities and platforms.
- convenience and instantaneity, particularly of mobile-based channels.
- technological tools and techniques that drive virality including bots, videos and deepfakes.
- the proliferation of user-generated content, which is often unregulated and unverified.
While much information online is trustworthy and credible, the growing volume of false information means people can become misinformed, particularly impressionable or less tech-savvy users, with potentially dangerous effects.
Further, the wide range of themes targeted by false information online, including politics; climate change; religion; and health, makes the ramifications all the more significant. Outcomes for affected individuals and communities can include increased stigmatisation and victimisation, outright human rights violations and even violence. Yet arguably the most significant and widespread impact is the growing mistrust of institutions and the disruption of democratic processes, which could have dire consequences for social cohesion and inclusive economic development.
This has been brought into sharp focus by the pandemic, which has been accompanied by an infodemic, an abundance of information, which has in some cases posed risks for measures to control virus transmission.
For the telecoms industry, the erroneous link between Covid-19 (coronavirus) and 5G is particularly relevant, the impacts of which include protests, harassment of engineers and arson attacks on mobile towers.
Far-reaching impacts: how are policymakers and other organisations responding?
Understandably, tackling false information online has become a priority for governments and other stakeholders around the world. This has led to various countermeasures, some with implications for content creators, platforms, internet users and mobile operators. A forthcoming GSMA report analyses the situation in four Asia Pacific markets, where governments are at the forefront of efforts to address false information online (see chart, below, click to enlarge). Typically, the rationale is to maintain social cohesion and protect the integrity of institutions, as well as to protect vulnerable individuals and communities.
Encouragingly, several major social media platforms, tech companies and mobile operators have also taken action, particularly in Asia Pacific, which is home to some of the biggest and fastest growing online communities globally. In Indonesia, the Google News Initiative has partnered with the Ministry of Communications and Informatics and anti-slander society Mafindo to run a media literacy programme to train the public to spot false information and hoaxes on the internet. As the pandemic developed, Twitter expanded its use of machine learning and automation to detect the spread of potentially abusive and manipulative content (exempli gratia fake cures or treatments) and flag it for removal. Moreover, Pakistani operators have used ringing tones and SMS to disseminate information about Covid-19 (coronavirus), complementing measures to zero-rate access to health agency websites.
Nevertheless, while the dangers associated with the viral distribution of false information are widely recognised, some (usually ex-post), government initiatives are not without consequence and should not be underestimated. One particular intervention to highlight is state-ordered internet shutdowns to control the flow of information, which can undermine users’ trust in the internet, with knock-on effects for the advancement of the digital economy and the reliability of critical online government services. They also come with significant economic and social costs, as well as negative reputation and revenue impacts for mobile operators.
Addressing the problem long-term: what should stakeholders consider?
All of these efforts indicate how successfully tackling false information online will require a multi-stakeholder approach. Governments, internet-based platforms, citizens and citizens groups, and mobile operators all have roles to play in confronting and managing this pressing challenge.
- Governments: As false information online can erode confidence in the state and institutions, considerations for governments which are especially relevant given the pandemic, could be to establish dedicated departments focused on this issue and to run mass awareness campaigns that engage with, inform and reassure the public.
- Social media platforms: Social networks have been at the centre of efforts to disseminate false information and they will be vital to addressing it. They will likely need to consider how to balance reasonable, open debate with the potential for inaccurate or harmful material to flourish, and be transparent on how and why content is left up or removed.
- Mobile operators: There can be misconceptions that wrongly put the blame on operators for the spread of negative content online. Still, operators can contribute positively by having the procedures in place for the timely compliance with notice and takedown orders upon receipt of a judicial order, and can employ their own channels to assist customers in finding verifiable, accurate information.
- Citizens and citizen organisations: Citizens are the most harmed group from false information (and disproportionate countermeasures), but can also be responsible its circulation. The public should remain vigilant and consider some fact checking before sharing content with their online communities, while citizen groups can support or drive initiatives to improve digital literacy among their members.
As the amount of false information online grows and delivery mechanisms will no doubt change as technology evolves, considerations such as these signal a collective effort to meeting the problem head-on and cultivate a safer, more enriching digital experience for all internet users.
– James Robinson – lead analyst, GSMA Intelligence
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.