A look back at #Disinfoweek at Stanford

by Eileen Donahoe, Executive Director, Global Digital Policy Incubator @CDDRL

PHOTO: Tamer Shabani

Stanford’s Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) joined forces last week with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to address one of the most urgent and complex problems of our time: the scourge of digital disinformation and its deleterious effects on democracy.

The core challenge addressed was how democratic actors could more effectively combat digital disinformation. Several key questions emerged during the program:

1. What is new and different about disinformation when combined with the speed, scale and extraterritorial reach of digital technology?

2. How should we articulate the difference between propaganda and passionate advocacy for a political view, between truth and lies and between fact and fabrication?

3. Does the context of democratic elections justify a different approach to combatting disinformation and protecting information integrity?

4. How should we think about the interplay between foreign power information operations and domestic actors pushing antidemocratic/authoritarian messages?

5. What are the optimal roles and responsibilities for private sector tech companies, professional journalists, civil society actors and governments in protecting democratic discourse in our global digital ecosystem?

The program highlighted that on the one hand, civil society activists around the world have benefitted immensely from the broad expansion of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association made possible by digital technology. Democratization of content distribution also has meant that a much wider diversity of content is accessible globally. But with this has come the loss of the reliability of information and quality of discourse necessary to democracy. Professional journalism, which traditionally played the role of a watchdog in democracy, has been disrupted by the competition from new digital sources of information. Investigative news organizations are struggling to find business models that work in the digital ecosystem.

With the influx of the wide variety of new online sources of information and content, we have watched the health of the digital information ecosystem deteriorate. Digital disinformation, sometimes referred to as “fake news,” is just one variety on a wide spectrum of ills in the digital information ecosystem that have a deleterious effect on democracy — from hate speech and terrorist incitement to violence, to echo-chambers and doxing. But disinformation is a peculiarly pernicious one, in that it is eroding confidence in the trustworthiness of information and discouraging political engagement essential to democracy.

Furthermore, authoritarian governments have become much more sophisticated in their use of digital technology, not only to control their populations and stifle dissent, but also to disrupt democratic processes beyond their borders. Digital tools and mechanisms, such as bot farms and psychographic targeting have been used very effectively by antidemocratic forces to manipulate public opinion and spread of disinformation extraterritorially. All this has led to general loss of public confidence in political leadership, media, institutions and even “truth.”

The threat of digital disinformation to national and global security has also risen to public consciousness, especially with reporting on the digital disinformation operation by Russia in the context of the 2016 United States presidential election. The American national security community was slow to recognize the threat, because we were relatively unsophisticated, even naïve, about how digital technology could be used to manipulate the public and erode trust in democratic processes.

Many Americans and global citizens are still stunned to see how powerless our political leaders seem to be in combatting the threat. While many cybersecurity experts were preparing for the threat of a cyber to kinetic attack on critical infrastructure, not many realized that weaponization of information would be the preferred vector of cyberattack or that democratic processes might be the targeted critical infrastructure. This episode has reminded us of the potency of information and served as a wake-up call about the level of threat we face from digital disinformation.

The CDDRL-NDI program included civil society actors from around the world who described the peculiar manifestations of digital disinformation in their varied contexts. Their stories combined to underscore the reality that while it is easy to be preoccupied with threats in our own domestic context, we need to pick-up our heads and see that together, we face a global threat from digital disinformation to democracy writ large. The program drove home the point that digital disinformation is a global phenomenon — with a terrifying interplay between external and internal antidemocratic forces. The difference in speed, scope and extraterritorial reach of disinformation today is a difference in kind — not just scale — from propaganda of old. The solutions do not lie with governments alone, nor with the private sector alone. This global threat will require cross-regional, cross-sector collaboration and a whole-society approach. We have now awoken to the potency of digital disinformation to undermine our democracy, our freedom and our security.

At the Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPi), we are working with private sector technology companies, government actors, journalists, and civil society actors to articulate practical solutions to the problem of digital disinformation. We will keep you posted as we develop policies and advocacy strategies to address this threat to democracy and human rights.

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