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Disinformation is a threat to our trust ecosystem. Experts explain how to curb it

“Trust is our most valuable asset,” says Emma Tucker, Editor-in-Chief of the Wall Street Journal. Image: Robin Worrall/Unsplash

Jesus Serrano
Global Communications Group, World Economic Forum
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  • Digital technology and fragmented media ecosystems have allowed disinformation to proliferate.
  • The spread of disinformation has fuelled an erosion of trust across societies.
  • Rebuilding trust and preserving a healthy media environment requires a joint effort of governments, media houses, technology firms and civil society.

In an era where digital technology is part of almost every aspect of our lives, the dissemination of information has never been easier or more instantaneous. Yet, in a world where false information can spread worldwide with the click of a button, a critical question arises: how do we safeguard the truth while a wave of disinformation threatens our information ecosystems and democratic societies?

Today, the proliferation of false content online is pervasive and exacerbates the erosion of global trust in institutions. In fact, only 40% of people say they consistently trust news. As the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2024 highlights, disinformation is considered to be the world’s top risk in the next two years, and the fifth global risk in the next ten years.

Addressing disinformation requires a concerted effort across sectors. Governments, media organizations, tech companies and civil society must collaborate to create a multi-layered defence against the spread of false information. Empowering Internet users with media information literacy, ensuring the independence and viability of news organizations, and leveraging technology to distinguish between credible journalism and disinformation are vital to countering the spread of false information.

These key actions were discussed at the Forum’s 54th Annual Meeting in Davos in the session titled ‘Defending Truth’, which included experts across sectors and specializations. Participants included Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency; Meredith Kopit Levien, New York Times President and Chief Executive Officer; Jeanne Bourgault, Internews President and Chief Executive Officer; and Emma Tucker, The Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief.

New digital landscape

The current digital age has revolutionized the way we access information and consume news. This has helped fuel the rise of fragmented and siloed media ecosystems, which can oversimplify complex issues.

Such a shift has made it harder for audiences to fully appreciate the value of independent journalism and has obfuscated the distinctions between independent, fact-based journalism and partisan opinions. It has also allowed disinformation to spread unabated, fuelling distrust and division.

“We need to help the public be more media literate as to the value and importance of independent journalism. People find it very hard for many reasons to distinguish what it is and is not,” Levien of the New York Times said during the session in Davos.

Tucker of the Wall Street Journal added: “Trust is our most valuable asset. And the minute we let go of that, our business models will fall apart. That also means we have to correct our mistakes. We have to be honest when we make mistakes.”


Reporting truth is expensive, slow and dangerous

In an era of instant communication, one of the key challenges is that disinformation travels faster than the truth can be verified, creating a breeding ground for confusion and mistrust. Unlike the viral spread of disinformation, the process of uncovering truth is often slow and laborious, demanding meticulous verification and careful investigation.

“Truth does unfold in many cases slowly. Most big stories about very consequential things, where the public needs understanding and to know who to hold to account and for what, takes days, weeks, and sometimes they take months,” Levien added, citing the Times’ months-long investigation into allegations of sexual assault in Hollywood that helped spark the #MeToo movement.

Another fundamental concern for defending truth is the dangerous nature of reporting from conflict zones or under authoritarian regimes. While reporting in such environments, journalists are often at risk, making it more difficult to deliver accurate, on-the-ground information, which is essential for a well-informed public.

“It is such a massive issue,” Tucker said, noting that there are “countries where we cannot send our journalists, and that is a challenge for all of us because we rely on eyewitness accounts to really make sure we are getting to the truth. It is a very grim trend.”

Bourgault of Internews echoed the concern for journalist operating in danger zones, noting that the ongoing conflict in the Middle East is the “single deadliest conflict in the history of journalism since it has been tracked by the Committee to Protect Journalists.”

Have you read?

Rebuilding trust in the age of AI and disinformation

The Principles for the Future of Responsible Media in the Era of AI, a World Economic Forum white paper, points out that media fragmentation, coupled with the increase of generative AI content often being indistinguishable from non-synthetic content, have made it harder for consumers to know what to trust and have increased the believe that the media is biased or untrustworthy. In turn, news consumers have become more susceptible to disinformation from alternative sources.

As noted, rebuilding trust and preserving a healthy trust ecosystem in the age of disinformation is a complex task that requires the joint effort of governments, media houses, technology firms and civil society. The concerted push to defend the truth should focus on fostering media literacy, reinforcing the independence and sustainability of quality news organizations, and embrace an openness to innovation and the responsible adoption of AI, among other measures.

Efforts to combat disinformation are underway. The European Union, for instance, recently adopted the Digital Services Act, which takes aim at harmful content online and includes comprehensive AI regulations, covering areas like transparency, the use of AI in public spaces and high-risk systems.

Meanwhile, the Forum’s Global Coalition for Digital Safety is actively confronting the challenge of disinformation by exploring the role of media literacy and fostering a whole-of-society approach to countering its proliferation.

Tackling disinformation may seem like a Sisyphean mission, yet it is essential to persist in these collective efforts to preserve the truth because, in no small way, our democracies depend on it.

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