Disinformation is not about simple lies

June 3, 2019 | Media
It is about multiplying lies on an industrial scale so that they eventually seem true. That is why it is dangerous for democracy and the free economy.

According to Eurostat, by now more than 70 % are afraid of disinformation. But the economy is alerted, too. The World Federation of Advertisers has recently estimated that digital ad fraud – online schemes that are nothing else but disinformation tactics – is about to reach 50 billion USD by 2025, second only to the volume of global drug trafficking. And this illustrates just the tip of the disinformation iceberg.

According to ABTShield, an AI-powered tool to detect bots behaviour online, half of the Internet traffic is fake, i.e. not generated by individual people. So disinformation generates real profit loss from ad budget as well as potential profit loss because potential customers were not informed. This is why Unilever and P&G have just announced to audit their online campaigns and other companies are likely to follow.

In public debate it is perfectly ok to be mistaken. I would also defend every person’s right to lie, but only if there are equal chances to challenge opinion in an open and equal debate. However, if those mistakes and lies are combined and massively amplified by AI-powered bot and trolling campaigns they are already fundamentally threatening our systems.

Democratic process is based on a simple principle of parliamentary and public debate. It assumes that no one holds the truth but we all seek factual information and are able to take informed decisions. Therefore debates in public and in the parliaments, however irritating and often stupid, make sense. It is because the outcomes provide better decisions than those taken in absence of well-informed debate. That’s why democracies have developed free media – once an innovative if not revolutionary idea to communicate with the abstract public – that became an indispensable element of balance to the three branches of power.

However, since the dawn of the digital age and mass spread of social media this delicate balance has been lost. Disinformation campaigns use mass scale artificial amplification of intentionally imperfect pieces of news. Viral spread of such gossip or conspiracy theory rumours makes it hard to counteract and leaves democracies defenceless.

Martin Moore, author of the recent bestselling book “Democracy Hacked” points out that advertising models have allowed to push up and amplify false messages that reach millions of citizens in just seconds before anyone has a chance to challenge them. And even if these are challenged the response comes much later than the original (mis)information and is unlikely to be spread so massively because it does not rely on organized bot and trolling amplification campaigns.

This results in a challenge to democracy, because it disrupts the foundation of public debate, along with decision-making based on information rather than only emotions. It also challenges the economy which – apart from emotional incentives contained in ads – relies on trust and facts.

Wojciech Przybylski, Editor in Chief
Visegrad Insight / Res Publica Foundation

The text is part of the OVE Aktuell, The Society for Information and Communications Technology project focused on “Social Media”.