Russians. UKIP. Trump. Marine Le Pen. Bolsonaro. These are some of the names we often relate to disinformation, frequently accused of manipulating data. The shady, right-wing, unscrupulous, tyrant-wannabe actors are definitely guilty. But even if they indeed take (or took at some point) advantage of misguiding data, they are not the root cause but a symptom. Disinformation is born out of a phenomenon seldom quoted when information manipulation is debated: inequality.
The end of the XX and the beginning of the XXI centuries are marked by a steep increase in inequality due to technological and financial innovation. Automation and de-regulation of capital markets strongly favoured the accumulation of wealth for a tiny fraction of society. There is very little room for doubt here. The return rate on capital surpassing overall economic growth deepens the distance between rich and poor, bringing all the social (and financial) consequences widely known. Capitalism became an enemy of itself, less and less efficient in allocating resources, rewarding innovation and talent and decentralising economic decision-making. You don’t have to be a socialist to be concerned with inequality (even more if you consider that there are no socialist countries at all, only dictatorships disguised as such). That’s where the root of all the havoc and chaos of any society lies.
The asymmetric economic growth that the last 30 years brought a deep frustration for the vast majority of society. The more deprived tier of the population not only have seen their livelihoods become harsher, with jobs outsourced to poorer countries and shrinking welfare. They also had their fears and concerns dismissed, creating the boiling pot of fear, anguish and frustration where populists sow the disinformation poison.
Digitisation enabled disinformation actors to explore and exploit the discontent generated by the friction between increasing wealth and the loss of society’s most vulnerable chunks’ resources. The manufacturing of hate and despair bubbles became much easier. Advertisement can be customised to such accuracy that messages are perceived as if they were individually written. Vast audiences fall prey to the malice of disinformation actors exactly because of their fragility, and they almost always cannot find out. The digital realm is a technological shift that enabled information to become a weapon available to a much larger group of individuals, not only the status quo. The growing frustration met its escaping route.
Yet, we are unprepared for this war. Governments should be the structures designated by society to safeguard the population’s interests, especially of the poorest sections, but they are desperately ill-equipped to react with the necessary speed. It’s a lost game. There is no way for any government to solve this issue in the foreseeable future, let alone in the short term.
This is why states and institutions must empower (or help to empower) civil initiatives to be the first responders to disinformation attack. The same way that the tech giants developed tools to reach audiences with surgical precision, disruptive businesses must fill the gap between bridging the gap between the government’s ability to react and the speed needed to prevent, in the short term, the disruptive threats taking advantage of legal loopholes. Disinformation is not a problem for governments to solve alone.
The growing and brewing discontentment e can see virtually everywhere is not new. There is an uncanny feeling of familiarity with the current situation because history books show that society is engulfed by fear and hate when living conditions worsen or when governments are no longer seen as representative. We see new power players claiming their share and incumbents fighting to keep their own. Data and opinion manipulation are old tricks, but technology changed their scale completely. No solution addressing only the technical perspective will work. To stop the Trumps and Bolsonaros, society needs to be mobilised, hopefully with the same technology that enabled the threats we see today.