2019 will be a landmark year in the disinformation war

By Areeq Chowdhury.

Fake news, Russian bots, data manipulation. If you think western democracy has been in freefall since the Trump/Brexit earthquake of 2016, brace yourself because that was just the beginning. The real nosedive will begin in 2019. Bot architects, fake news peddlers, and psychographic analysts have spent the past few years learning the trade, testing prototypes, and ironing out faults. Ideas, rhetoric, and digital might will collide in a perfect storm this coming year. The European Parliament election and the increasingly likely second referendum on Brexit will be the primary targets. These European Parliament elections, in particular, will make or break the EU. Expect to trust less of what you read online and for political discourse to become more hostile, more divisive, and more depressing.

Since 2016, the term ‘fake news’ has itself become a victim of its own poorly defined concept, being twisted beyond recognition and weaponised against political opponents. Popularised in the US, it has been used to reject negative stories by world leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. In the UK, even a House of Commons’ inquiry into ‘fake news’ called for the term to be rejected. The alternative it suggested, however – disinformation – is real and its threat has shown no sign of subsiding.

If it wasn’t before, it is clear now that this problem isn’t limited to niche corners of the internet and that it has entered the mainstream. Evidence detailing the targeted digital ads of the UK’s official campaign in 2016 to leave the European Union, Vote Leave, were released in the summer of 2018. It showed that whilst some of these ads focused on some of the more traditional political debates, others spread bizarre messages about the EU wanting to ‘kill our cuppa’. Elsewhere across Europe, major political events have become embroiled in digital guerrilla warfare with the truth under fire. Everything from the gilet jaunes protest in France, the general election in Italy, and the name-change referendum in Macedonia were subject to online disinformation campaigns in 2018. The slow reaction from governments, regulators, and social media giants to combat this has, thus far, provided little to no impact.

Vote Leave cuppa advert
Facebook released the targeted adverts deployed by the official Vote Leave campaign.

A recent study of nine million tweets from Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the infamous “troll farm” at the centre of the Mueller investigation, found that the primary objective in the UK was to spread anti-Muslim hatred online. Islamophobic messages were shared 25 times more than those about Brexit or other political issues. This isn’t particularly surprising, given that Muslims have been a go-to target for various media outlets, both new and traditional, since the turn of the millennium. Day one of the Brexit referendum campaign saw prominent leave campaigner, then-Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, warn that a vote to remain would make Britain vulnerable to Paris-style terrorist attacks. UKIP, the party Nigel Farage successfully led to victory in the 2014 European Parliament elections, winning more seats than the Conservatives and Labour, is now a proudly Islamophobic political force. With the next round of European Parliament elections in May and a potential re-run of the Brexit referendum before that, should we expect more of the same?

Recent opinion polls show Marine Le Pen’s party polling ahead of Emmanuel Macron’s with the anti-EU movement backed further from the support of smaller far-right parties such as Debout la France. Meanwhile, Sweden’s far-right anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats, are expected to double their number of seats in the European Parliament. Elsewhere, the growing popularity of Italy’s 5-Star movement, the Alternative for Deutschland, and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands make it likely that the debates around immigration and Islam will remain at the forefront of political discourse.

A second referendum in the UK on EU membership could also add to this toxic sewer of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, much like the one in 2016 but this time with Steve Bannon’s added influence.

However, with this risk comes opportunity. Is victory inevitable for the agents of discord and division or will 2019 be the year that governments get a grip on the crisis of disinformation? To do so, the media must reject the economy of outrage and clickbait, focusing instead on the value of truth and human stories. Governments need to take inspiration from Silicon Valley and be creative in how they disrupt the worst side-effects of the disruptors. Citizens have to become critical analysts of information, questioning more and trusting less. This is still a minority debate and a minority struggle, limited to small echo chambers online and few members in the chambers of Parliament.

It will be a landmark year in the disinformation war. Right now, the other side looks stronger, more experienced, more capable. Meanwhile, we are floundering, unsure of whether we are subject to attack and what to even label this phenomenon. As we enter this new year, we should take with us a resolve to move beyond this stage and onto building strong shields with which we can arm ourselves and take into combat.

Areeq Chowdhury is the Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy.

This was originally published in the Concordia Forum’s Insights journal here. (pdf)

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