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.
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.