The revelation, detailed in the forum’s latest comprehensive study, points to a future where truth is not just contested but often distorted, with significant implications for electoral integrity, societal cohesion, and even the very nature of democracy.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) is a prominent non-governmental international organization founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab. The group’s membership includes some of the most influential people in the world, including top business executives, government officials, and leaders from international organizations.
The WEF is most well known for its annual meetings at Davos Mountain Resort in Switzerland, where members and select invited guests discuss and shape global, regional, and industry agendas.
This year’s 2024 Global Threats report was published just before the Davos meeting on January 14-19.
The 124-page report paints a bleak picture of the future, with authors saying “a predominantly negative outlook for the world over the next two years that is expected to worsen over the next decade.”
Over the next ten years, extreme weather events, critical changes to Earth systems, loss of biodiversity, and ecosystem collapse were cited as the top three global threats.
In an unprecedented finding in its fifty-year history, the WEF designated misinformation and disinformation as the top global threats for the next two years. The report further detailed that among stakeholders, civil society, academia, and the private sector are most at risk from the impact of false information.
The WEF highlighted the rapid growth of artificial intelligence as the main factor increasing the risk posed by misinformation and disinformation.
“No longer requiring a niche skill set, easy-to-use interfaces to large-scale artificial intelligence (AI) models have already enabled an explosion in falsified information and so-called ‘synthetic’ content, from sophisticated voice cloning to counterfeit websites,” the global threats report reads.
In an ominous warning, the WEF predicts that AI-generated misinformation and disinformation “will manipulate individuals, damage economies, and fracture societies in numerous ways over the next two years.”
Timing is another factor bolstering false information’s menacing potential. Nearly three billion people across various global economies, including the United States, India, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and Indonesia, are poised to participate in the electoral processes over the next two years.
The WEF warns that these democratic exercises could be undermined by a deluge of falsified information. This manipulation, fueled by sophisticated technologies and the proliferation of synthetic content, threatens not only the legitimacy of electoral outcomes but also risks inciting violence, terrorism, and long-term democratic erosion.
The report also touches on how false information has led to a growing distrust of information sources, including media and government. Authors warn that this mistrust over information can form a vicious cycle, potentially deepening societal divisions or leading to civil unrest and confrontation.
“Polarized societies are more likely to trust information (true or false) that confirms their beliefs,” the WEF warns.
“The consequences could be vast. Societies may become polarized not only in their political affiliations but also in their perceptions of reality, posing a serious challenge to social cohesion and even mental health,” authors warn. “When emotions and ideologies overshadow facts, manipulative narratives can infiltrate the public discourse on issues ranging from public health to social justice and education to the environment.”
Social polarization ranked third on the WEF’s list of short-term global risks behind extreme weather events.
The implications of an impending false information crisis extend beyond the immediate socio-political realm. Scientific truths can be obscured or misrepresented by disinformation, hindering public understanding and leading to a decline in support for vital research or informed decisions reliant on accurate scientific data.
The WEF warns that in this landscape, defining truth becomes contentious, and actors ranging from conspiracy theorists and extremist groups to social media influencers can suddenly become the arbiters of truth.
The report also forewarns that the misuse of AI technologies will likely lead to a new class of crimes, such as non-consensual deepfake pornography or stock market manipulation.
Combating this misinformation and disinformation crisis will likely be a daunting task.
Some governments are beginning to implement regulations targeting online misinformation and disinformation, such as China’s new requirement that AI-generated content must contain a watermark. However, the WEF notes that “the speed and effectiveness of regulation is unlikely to match the pace of development.”‘
And while inaction poses risks, the report also warns that authorities can also resort to repression to control the spread of false information, leading to a potential erosion of civil rights.
“Indeed, the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation may be leveraged to strengthen digital authoritarianism and the use of technology to control citizens,” the report reads. “Governments themselves will be increasingly in a position to determine what is true, potentially allowing political parties to monopolize the public discourse and suppress dissenting voices, including journalists and opponents.”
“The export of authoritarian digital norms to a wider set of countries could create a vicious cycle: the risk of misinformation quickly descends into the widespread control of information which, in turn, leaves citizens vulnerable to political repression and domestic disinformation.”
Ultimately, the 2024 Global Threats Report calls for a concerted effort from governments, technology companies, and civil society to address the scourge of misinformation and disinformation. The report emphasizes the need for more robust regulatory frameworks, increased funding for research and development in detection technologies, and a global commitment to upholding truth and integrity in public discourse.
As alarming as the global outlook may be, economist and managing director of the World Economic Forum, Saadia Zahidi, points out, “The future is not fixed.”
“A multiplicity of different futures is conceivable over the next decade. Although this drives uncertainty in the short term, it also allows room for hope,” said Zahidi in the report’s preface. “Alongside global risks and the era-defining changes underway lie unique opportunities to rebuild trust, optimism, and resilience in our institutions and societies.”
“It is our hope that the report serves as a vital call to action for open and constructive dialogue among leaders of government, business, and civil society to take action to minimize global risks and build upon long-term opportunities and solutions.”
Tim McMillan is a retired law enforcement executive, investigative reporter and co-founder of The Debrief. His writing typically focuses on defense, national security, the Intelligence Community and topics related to psychology. You can follow Tim on Twitter:@LtTimMcMillan. Tim can be reached by email: email@example.com or through encrypted email:LtTimMcMillan@protonmail.com