Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the global community has depended on digital media and social media platforms on a tremendous scale, ensuring safety, connectivity and an informed citizenry – an unprecedented achievement.
But the same information and communication technologies (ICTs) that have facilitated productivity and critical information flows are also the means by which false content and polarizing narratives have been amplified, all too often distorting healthy public discourse and impeding the effective implementation of public health initiatives.
This is by no means a new challenge that public health, political, electoral and social institutions are now being forced to confront. Just like the COVID-19 pandemic, the developing conflict in Ukraine offers another example of the widespread diffusion of competing and often erroneous narratives propagated globally by diverse actors during times of crisis.
During crises, critical, often life-saving information must be available to citizens in order to effectuate timely, successful responses. At the same time, they present opportunities for fringe groups and malign actors to exploit systemic vulnerabilities within our digital communications ecosystem.
The erosion of trust in scientific experts and public institutions, which is driven by an informational sphere polluted with mis- and disinformation has a grave cost, as stated in a 2021 press briefing by US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy: “Health misinformation has cost us lives … while it often appears innocuous on social media apps, retail sites, or search engines, the truth is that misinformation takes away our freedom to make informed decisions about our health and the health of our loved ones.”
In recent years, the public health sector has struggled to meet the new realities of this complex digital ecosystem. What outlook can we expect in 2022 with respect to this global, cross-border problem?
The human impact of ‘information pollution’
In a 2021 article, Nasdaq cited mis- and disinformation as one of the top cybercrime predictions for 2022. With several major elections approaching in 2022, including the US midterm elections, the French presidential election, the Brazilian general election and several other key plebiscites, such campaigns propagating false information on a massive scale are likely to intensify.
Leaders in the public and private sphere appear to agree that the spread of misinformation and digital propaganda is an incredibly difficult challenge to stem. Asked by Pew to predict what the world will look like in 2025 following the global pandemic outbreak and other crises, a range of thought leaders shared their views on the state of our digital ecosystem.
Key trends included a consensus that propaganda is currently out of control, driven by the weaponization of cloud-based technologies. This dynamic results in social divisions, while threatening rational dialogue and “evidence-based policymaking”.
An example of the worst of human nature being amplified through information communications technologies is highlighted in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Constella Intelligence’s joint research into “information pollution” in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).
This research uncovered the significant influence of “polluting actors” exporting false narratives across geographies and influencing the digital conversation around COVID-19 and vaccines. The implications of this research are clear: Though the digital sphere serves as an essential “public square” for the rapid exchange of critical information, the integrity and quality of this information vary in their reliability due to a multitude of tech-related and health-related factors. This type of intelligence is critical in informing institutional responses to these ecosystem-level challenges.
Synthetic media and digital counterfeits
As variants of the coronavirus prolong the pandemic, accelerating digitization and hybrid-remote workforces will continue to expand attack vectors for businesses and individuals. Weaponized disinformation in the form of deepfake audio has already, in a few recent instances, been used to execute sophisticated cyberattacks like phishing and business email compromise (BEC) that dupe victims into unwittingly making financial transactions or sharing sensitive corporate data.
As well as such synthetic media, digitally produced counterfeits transacted in the online sphere will also prove fruitful for threat actors. Throughout the pandemic, COVID tests and even vaccines themselves have been identified for sale online, among other COVID-related items. As discovered in numerous 2021 reports, the black market for fake vaccination certificates is already robustly active and will likely continue to expand due to growing domestic and international restrictions on the unvaccinated.
The vulnerability of public health institutions
Forrester’s predictions for 2022 hold that healthcare will cease to occupy the so-called “trusted category” as misinformation and cyberattacks persist, noting that: “The spread of false health information, shortcomings in data integrity and the politicization of science will unseat healthcare from its standing as a trusted industry.”
As noted in the aforementioned UNDP report, factors such as the speed of vaccination roll-outs as well as the many unknowns regarding COVID-19 contribute to an environment of uncertainty in which the credibility and legitimacy of authoritative institutions are forced to compete with a new wave of influential online actors in the social media and alt-media sphere.
Erroneous information and deficient trust result in tangible public health inefficiencies, jeopardizing critical social gains and prolonging the pandemic. This is currently being witnessed in several countries struggling with rising rates of vaccine hesitancy, contributing to lagging vaccine roll-outs.
Digital media, especially social media, has connected the world in ways never imaginable – but this expanded global reach brings forth increased levels of information pollution from limitless cross-border sources that cloud critical information flows. A complex ecosystem of interconnected digital citizens requires structural, multilayered solutions to combat newly empowered threat actors seeking to wreak havoc during times of global vulnerability such as the pandemic.
This article previously appeared in the World Economic Forum.