As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread around the globe, the World Health Organization (WHO) has outlined a different type of outbreak to be concerned about. As information on the virus deluges traditional and social media, the WHO warns that societies around the world are facing an “infodemic”—an “overabundance” of information that makes it difficult for people to identify truthful and trustworthy sources from false or misleading ones.
Social media has proved an essential tool for catalyzing political activism and social change around the world. Yet, the very features that make it so useful to those with greater-good intentions—scalability, mobility, and low costs to entry—also make it prone to manipulation by malign actors who use it to spread disinformation and divisive rhetoric. These bad actors looking to sway public opinion include both fringe groups and well-funded, highly staffed government institutions. With the US presidential election approaching, voters and policymakers are rightly concerned with what should be done to mitigate the flurry of fake news stemming from beyond the border.
In this new series, experts give their quick responses to five questions about the most important news of the day.
What should the United States be most concerned about regarding possible meddling by Russia in US elections?
Jesse Driscoll: I think three things are pretty concerning. First, it’s concerning that the kinds of interventions we have evidence of can easily be “up-scaled” without necessarily violating laws. Second, I find it concerning that the Russian government is so entrepreneurial about identifying polarizing issues that do not seemingly have anything to with US-Russia policy—suggesting they may be fine-tuning models of voter turnout suppression that could induce disgust and be micro-targeted. Third, and most importantly, I think it’s clear that Russia is just experimenting. It’s easy to imagine other countries doing more, with more resources, in the near future.
Disinformation and distrust online are set to take a turn for the worse. Rapid advances in deep-learning algorithms to synthesize video and audio content have made possible the production of “deep fakes”—highly realistic and difficult-to-detect depictions of real people doing or saying things they never said or did. As this technology spreads, the ability to produce bogus yet credible video and audio content will come within the reach of an ever-larger array of governments, nonstate actors, and individuals. As a result, the ability to advance lies using hyperrealistic, fake evidence is poised for a great leap forward.