False information: a dangerous threat to liberal democracy

A lie travels ten times faster than the truth: How often have we heard this sentence in the last few years and been warned of the dangers of fake news? 
In a world of constant, immediate, and effortless access to information it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from falsehood. Not only does this have a direct impact on our personal lives, but it is covertly threatening the very principles of liberal democracy. False information in fact becomes particularly dangerous when purposely spread by authoritarian governments to weaken rival countries or institutions. 

Iran and Russia have in recent years become masters in the subtle art of wreaking havoc through targeted information manipulation strategies. The interference of Russian trolls in the 2016 US election shocked the world and became one of the first examples of this deceitful and dangerous strategy. Now a new global power has been testing this tactic on the world stage: The People’s Republic of China.

China has long been using disinformation as a strategy domestically and in surrounding regions such as Taiwan. In the 2018 and 2019 elections, for example, fake news stories, bots, and falsified social media accounts were used to manipulate and deceive the Taiwanese people into voting for a pro-China candidate. This tactic has been repeatedly used to advance pro-mainland positions and promote the benefits of reunification, as China does not recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan. 

In both cases disinformation was used as a weapon to cause confusion, posing a serious threat to the integrity and stability of the Taiwanese political landscape. 

Disinformation about Covid-19 

Now, this strategy is being adopted on a global scale. Following the outbreak of Covid-19, China pursued extensive disinformation campaigns in Europe and North America, to criticize countries’ poor handling of the pandemic and to change the narrative of being the country of origin of the coronavirus crisis. To do this the Chinese government not only used fake accounts and trolls but also relied on Chinese diplomats and state media outlets. 

In mid-April, for example, the Chinese embassy to France falsely claimed that French care workers had abandoned their jobs leaving residents to die, sparking outrage all across the country. Whilst the Chinese government has denied this, claiming it was a misunderstanding, the fact that an official state outlet would publicly share false information raises the alarm to the dangers of this insidious problem. 

False information affects governments, politicians but most of all people. With social media now a main source of information, many are becoming more and more susceptible to disinformation. Not only are people more likely to accept and believe false information, but it is becoming increasingly harder for governments to fight this kind of threat.
How are democratic countries supposed to compete with authoritarian governments who seek to enhance their international influence through information manipulation? 

So, what can be done?

There is no one solution to this problem, but one of the best forms of defence is surely user education. People of all political orientations need to become more aware that what they read online may not be accurate and view information more critically. A critical perspective on all information is essential to efficiently counter this threat. However, more effective solutions are also needed by governments and global tech companies. 

Governments need to develop better capabilities to resist malicious cyber campaigns and perhaps establish specific taskforces devoted to fighting disinformation campaigns, as has been recently done by Australia. Global tech companies on the other hand need to improve their efforts in fighting disinformation online. One way to do this is by setting cross-platform standards, as has been recently done by Full Fact, a British fact-checking charity which is collaborating with Facebook, Twitter and Google to fight Covid-19 disinformation. These companies also need to be held more accountable if there is evidence that their platform was used to spread false information.[2]

If we don’t act now, we will eventually be living in a world where it will become very difficult to single out accurate information. The political, social, and economic consequences are unimaginable, as foreign countries could attack their competitors without having to ever cross a border. It is therefore essential not only to raise as much awareness as possible on this issue but to also enact concrete policies against it. 


Why federalism hinders effective policies against Covid-19

Our world is facing the same problem, but different governments have reacted with different measures and strategies – and with different levels of success. Hong Kong and South Korea seem to have been the most successful countries in the fight against Covid-19. Both reacted quickly and implemented strict measures such as surveilling the movement of their citizens, quarantine, and consequent social-distancing measures. Additionally, mask-wearing is not new for citizens of Asian countries, mainly due to polluted air.

In Europe, Italy was the first country that was faced with the virus and reacted strictly with a first nationwide lockdown on the 11th of March. Germany and France followed with similar reactions, while Great Britain apparently needed its Prime Minister to experience the virus himself before taking it seriously. Sweden followed a unique strategy and the president of the United States is still highly incapable of dealing with any demanding situation at all.

Less political resistance in centralized systems

The Covid-19 pandemic did not only reveal which leaders are capable of managing a global health crisis. More than nine months since the outbreak and its spread over the whole world, it also showed which political system is the most effective and practical when dealing with a global pandemic:

The more centralized a system, the easier it is to implement (drastic) measures. It was not challenging for the Communist Party in Beijing to control 1.393 billion people in China and regulate their behavior. However, if the autocratic Chinese government were more transparent and liberal, the virus would have been contained much earlier. South Korea, a unitary presidential republic, successfully controlled the coronavirus by surveilling the movements of its citizens and implementing a national mandatory obligation to wear a mask.  Additionally, the government in Seoul supported the economy with grants from the very beginning.

The federal state of Switzerland, on the other hand, was still arguing in mid-October whether customers in a store should wear a mask or not. Of course, there are many more Covid-19 cases in urban Geneva than in rural Appenzell, but a virus does not stop at a border – and especially not within a country. After strict and centralized measures at the beginning of the pandemic, the Swiss government has lost control over the handling because the different cantons felt disempowered in the proud federal country. In Germany, a federal nation as well, the federal lands are pursuing different strategies that have caused uncertainty and political chaos in facing a second wave. In Germany’s neighbor-state, however, the French president Emmanuel Macron decided in October to reimplement a strict curfew and acted single-handedly without any form of political resistance.

Federalism – an imperfect system

While federalism is a fair system for heterogeneous countries in general, it hinders effective policies and force in times of crisis – such as the handling of a global pandemic. Centralized or even autocratic nations can implement a national strategy much faster and much more effectively than federal states due to fewer players and, therefore, less political resistance in the decision-making process. Whether this is democratic or not must be put on hold. Democracy means the government of the people, by the people, for the people, as Abraham Lincoln famously stated in 1858. This must be accepted, and policymakers must be trusted. Most importantly, in times of crisis!