With billions to vote in 2024, World Economic Forum ranks disinformation as top short-term threat

The impact of false and divisive content in a time of strong polarization, new and powerful technologies and fragile democracies is one of the major risks identified by the annual event in Davos, Switzerland

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Police officers stand watch from the roof of a building in Davos on Monday.DENIS BALIBOUSE (REUTERS)
Andrea Rizzi (Special correspondent)

Around 70 countries — with a total of more than 3.7 billion inhabitants, or almost half of the global population — plan to hold presidential or legislative elections in 2024. At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting (WEF), which is held in Davos, Switzerland, there is noticeable concern about how disinformation may threaten these elections and the global health of democracy. A risk report published by the WEF in the run-up to the annual event, after consulting with 1,500 global experts, listed disinformation as the greatest short- and long-term risk, along with the climate crisis.

It is interesting to note that in the WEF’s 2023 risk report, disinformation was not even included in the top 10 biggest threats, either in the short term (two years from now) or in the long term (10). This year, the WEF ranks it the biggest short-term risk, and the fifth-biggest long-term risk, behind different threats linked to climate change. In addition to the report, the program for the Davos summit — which runs from January 15 to 19 — and the statements made at the forum confirm that misinformation is a major concern.

Police officers patrol the street, on the first day of the annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 15, 2024.
Police officers patrol the street, on the first day of the annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 15, 2024. DENIS BALIBOUSE (REUTERS)

Disinformation — that is, self-interested acts to confuse or whip up public opinion — can have an explosive impact, especially in a context marked by social polarization, increasingly fragile democracies, heightening geopolitical tensions and a challenging tech environment, where in addition to the fake news spreading on social media, there is now the threat of artificial intelligence.

Generative artificial intelligence, in particular, represents both a quantitative risk — disinformation can be produced in greater volume as humans do not need to create all the content — and a qualitative one — deepfakes make disinformation appear more credible, making it more persuasive and difficult to deny.

False accusations from politicians

Naturally, there are many ways for disinformation to reach the public, and often politicians are a dangerous source of fake news. In the United States, where presidential elections will be held in November, candidate Donald Trump has a proven track record of spreading disinformation, including false accusations of voter fraud in the 2020 election. Such tactics are as old as politics itself, but today, the situation is worse than it was in the past.

Leading international studies agree that democracy is declining on a global scale, with reports recording long periods where there have been more setbacks than progress.

A woman cleans the logo of the WEF, on the first day of the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), in Davos.
A woman cleans the logo of the WEF, on the first day of the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), in Davos.GIAN EHRENZELLER (EFE)

The strong social polarization leads to a breakdown in communication, which — in addition to eroding efforts to build political consensus — also makes it more difficult for the media to debunk fake news. Even if these reports are accurate and valuable, they often go unnoticed or are not believed by citizens, who will believe the fake news stories if they are not ideologically aligned with the media outlet trying to debunk them.

On the other hand, social media, which monetizes user engagement, have a perverse incentive to encourage heated online discourse, which unleashes passions and engages people even more. As the writer, political scientist and former political advisor Giuliano da Empoli recently pointed out in an interview with EL PAÍS, beyond the action of malicious actors, social media algorithms already promote discord and polarization.

In parallel, there is the problematic dilemma of whether — and how — large social media platforms should screen content. Containing the spread of false information in these viral content machines is key. But the goal of preventing the dissemination of fake news comes up against concerns that allowing these private tech giants to further block content could curtail freedom of expression.

Geostrategic competition has worsened the outlook, as authoritarian regimes are more interested in disrupting democratic processes today than they were a few years ago. The objective is twofold: to weaken the world’s largest democracies by plunging them into paralysis or even hatred, and to demonstrate to other countries that there are more effective models, in order to enlarge in the medium term the field of regimes — in which China, Russia and Iran rub shoulders — and shrink that of liberal democracies.

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