This report is an attempt to comprehensively examine information disorder and its related challenges, such as filter bubbles and echo chambers. While the historical impact of rumours and fabricated content have been well documented, we argue that contemporary social technology means that we are witnessing something new: information pollution at a global scale; a complex web of motivations for creating, disseminating and consuming these ‘polluted’ messages; a myriad of content types and techniques for amplifying content; innumerable platforms hosting and reproducing this content; and breakneck speeds of communication between trusted peers.
The direct and indirect impacts of information pollution are difficult to quantify. We’re only at the earliest of stages of understanding their implications. Since the results of the ‘Brexit’ vote in the UK, Donald Trump’s victory in the US and Kenya’s recent decision to nullify its national election result, there has been much discussion of how information disorder is influencing democracies. More concerning, however, are the long-term implications of dis-information campaigns designed specifically to sow mistrust and confusion and to sharpen existing socio-cultural divisions using nationalistic, ethnic, racial and religious tensions.
So, how do we begin to address information pollution? To effectively tackle the problems of mis-, dis- and mal- information, we need to work together on the following fronts:
- Definitions. Think more critically about the language we use so we can effectively capture the complexity of the phenomenon;
- Implications for democracy. Properly investigate the implications for democracy when false or misleading information circulates online;
- Role of television. Illuminate the power of the mainstream media, and in particular television, in the dissemination and amplification of poor-quality information that originates online;
- Implications of weakened local media. Understand how the collapse of local journalism has enabled mis- and dis-information to take hold, and find ways to support local journalism;
- Micro-targeting. Discern the scale and impact of campaigns that use demographic profiles and online behavior to micro-target fake or misleading information;
- Computational amplification. Investigate the extent to which influence is bought through digital ‘astroturfing’—the use of bots and cyborgs to manipulate the outcome of online petitions, change search engine results and boost certain messages on social media;
- Filter bubbles and echo chambers. Consider the implications of the filter bubbles and echo chambers that have emerged because of media fragmentation, both offline (mediated via partisan talk radio and cable news) and online (mediated via hyper- partisan websites, algorithmically derived feeds on social networks and radical communities on WhatsApp, Reddit and 4chan.);
- Declining trust in evidence. Understand the implications of different communities failing to share a sense of reality based on facts and expertise.
In this report, we refrain from using the term ‘fake news’ for two reasons. First, it is woefully inadequate to describe the complex phenomena of information pollution. The term has also begun to be appropriated by politicians around the world to describe news organisations whose coverage they find disagreeable. In this way, it’s becoming a mechanism by which the powerful can clamp down upon, restrict, undermine and circumvent the free press.
We therefore introduce a new conceptual framework for examining information disorder, identifying the three different types: mis-, dis- and mal-information. Using the dimensions of harm and falseness, we describe the differences between these three types of information:
▪ Mis-information is when false information is shared, but no harm is meant.
▪ Dis-information is when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm.
▪ Mal-information is when genuine information is shared to cause harm, often by moving information designed to stay private into the public sphere.
We also argue that we need to separately examine the ‘elements’ (the agent, messages and interpreters) of information disorder. In this matrix we pose questions that need to be asked of each element.
We also emphasise the need to consider the three different ‘phases’ (creation, production, distribution) of information disorder.
As we explain, the ‘agent’ who creates a fabricated message might be different to the agent who produces that message—who might also be different from the ‘agent’ who distributes the message. Similarly, we need a thorough understanding of who these agents are and what motivates them.
We must also understand the different types of messages being distributed by agents, so that we can start estimating the scale of each and addressing them. (The debate to date has been overwhelmingly focused on fabricated text news sites, when visual content is just as widespread and much harder to identify and debunk.)
Finally, we need to examine how mis-, dis- and mal-information are being consumed, interpreted and acted upon. Are they being re-shared as the original agent intended? Or are they being re-shared with an oppositional message attached? Are these rumours continuing to travel online, or do they move offline into personal conversations, which are difficult to capture?
A key argument within this report, which draws from the work of the scholar James Carey, is that we need to understand the ritualistic function of communication. Rather than simply thinking about communication as the transmission of information from one person to another, we must recognize that communication plays a fundamental role in representing shared beliefs. It is not just information, but drama — “a portrayal of the contending forces in the world.”
The most ‘successful’ of problematic content is that which plays on people’s emotions, encouraging feelings of superiority, anger or fear. That’s because these factors drive re- sharing among people who want to connect with their online communities and ‘tribes’. When most social platforms are engineered for people to publicly ‘perform’ through likes, comments or shares, it’s easy to understand why emotional content travels so quickly and widely, even as we see an explosion in fact-checking and debunking organizations.
In addition to our conceptual framework, we provide a round-up of related research, reports and practical initiatives connected to the topic of information disorder, as well as filter bubbles and echo chambers. We examine solutions that have been rolled out by the social networks and consider ideas for strengthening existing media, news literacy projects and regulation. We also introduce some key future trends, particularly in terms of the rise of closed messaging apps and the implications of artificial intelligence technology for manufacturing as well as detecting dis-information.
The report ends with an explanation of thirty-five recommendations, targeted at technology companies, national governments, media organisations, civil society, education ministries and funding bodies. They are explained in detail after the report’s conclusions.