A new report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) sounds a warning about the “global risk of massive digital misinformation” which it says “sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyber attacks and the failure of global governance”.
WEF argues that potential “digital wildfires” can wreak havoc in the real world because of the risk posed by hyperconnectivity which presents an opportunity for people to misuse the Internet.
Unlike more mature broadcasting platforms like radio, the Internet is still young and as such we have seen many a tweet, blog, podcast or video posting that has driven public panic or promoted misinformation because they were not verified and the speed at which the Internet allows for information to travel.
The risk is further aggravated by the fact the Internet, unlike TV and Radio which are “one to many” communication channels, is a “many to many” communication channel, thus having many more potential points at which the “wrong” information could be broadcast.
The WEF report gives an example of a “digital wildfire” by stating the following example: “The Internet does have self-correcting mechanisms, as Wikipedia demonstrates. While anyone can upload false information, a community of Wikipedia volunteers usually finds and corrects errors speedily.”
The report continues: “The short-lived existence of false information on its site is generally unlikely to result in severe real-world consequences; however, it is conceivable that a false rumour spreading virally through social networks could have a devastating impact before being effectively corrected.
“It is just as conceivable that the offending content’s original author might not even be aware of its misuse or misrepresentation by others on the Internet, or that it was triggered by an error in translation from one language to another. We can think of such a scenario as an example of a digital wildfire.”
Preventing Digital Wildfires
Does the solution to preventing digital wildfires lie in legal restrictions on “online anonymity and freedom of speech” as the WEF report suggests, but is quick to point out the possible “undesirable effects” of such a measure?
Well this would be akin to censoring the Internet.
We can argue that like any other broadcasting or publishing medium, and given how quick any information spreads through the Internet, it can self-correct once the “misinformation” reaches those who know the “facts”, just as newspapers issue apologies on wrong information published.
Whilst censorship might stop “misinformation”, it also has the potential to reduce dramatically the use of the Internet and is open to manipulation by those who will be tasked with censoring.
Impact of Social Media
Social Media Networks have grown rapidly in a short space of time across the world. From Facebook reaching more than 1 billion active users in less than a decade of existence, to China’s “Twitter Clone” Sina-Weibo (micro-blogging paltform) passing 400 million active accounts in summer 2012.
With this Social Media growth we have witnessed its transformative effects, especially in Africa. The WEF report states “studies of Twitter and Facebook activity in Egypt and Tunisia leave no doubt about the role social media played in facilitating the Arab Spring.”
However, the report argues that “some individuals and organisations have suffered losses due to the capacity for information to spread virally and globally through social media” citing examples such as the YouTube video titled “Innocence of Muslims” which was uploaded by a private individual in the US and caused riots in the Middle East where more than 50 people died.
The Internet can self-correct but Digital Wildfires can cause harm
There have been many cases on social media networks where users have broadcast “misinformation” such as the death of some well known people, but other users on the platforms, as well as the people affected, were quick to correct the “misinformation”.
As with the “Innocence of Muslims” YouTube video and many other “digital wildfires” which have caused loss of life, the report states that digital wildfires are most dangerous in situations of high tension and when false information or inaccurately presented imagery can cause damage before it is possible to propagate accurate information.
The first step towards taming “digital wildfires” lies in individual responsibility by educating users that not everything they read or see on the Internet is to be taken as “gospel”. The other side of the “responsibility coin” is holding people accountable for the misinformation they spread as you would in real life, for example defamation or slander.
This argument becomes difficult when it comes to the malicious and intentional misuse of the Internet by individuals and organisations with ulterior motives who are also good at covering their “digital tracks”.
Although it is a complex problem to solve given the infancy of the internet as a platform, censorship is not the answer as it will be abused.