UN chief calls for action to put out ‘5-alarm global fire’


UNAffairs: “At a time when “the only certainty is more uncertainty”, countries must unite to forge a new, more hopeful and equal path, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the General Assembly on Friday, laying out his priorities for 2022. 

“We face a five-alarm global fire that requires the full mobilization of all countries,” he said, referring to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, a morally bankrupt global financial system, the climate crisis, lawlessness in cyberspace, and diminished peace and security. 

He stressed that countries “must go into emergency mode”, and now is the time to act as the response will determine global outcomes for decades ahead…. 

Alarm four: Technology and cyberspace 

While technology offers extraordinary possibilities for humanity, Mr. Guterres warned that “growing digital chaos is benefiting the most destructive forces and denying opportunities to ordinary people.” 

He spoke of the need to both expand internet access to the nearly three billion people still offline, and to address risks such as data misuse, misinformation and cyber-crime. 

“Our personal information is being exploited to control or manipulate us, change our behaviours, violate our human rights, and undermine democratic institutions. Our choices are taken away from us without us even knowing it”, he said. 

The UN chief called for strong regulatory frameworks to change the business models of social media companies which “profit from algorithms that prioritize addiction, outrage and anxiety at the cost of public safety”. 

He has proposed the establishment of a Global Digital Compact, bringing together governments, the private sector and civil society, to agree on key principles underpinning global digital cooperation. 

Another proposal is for a Global Code of Conduct to end the infodemic and the war on science, and promote integrity in public information, including online.  

Countries are also encouraged to step up work on banning lethal autonomous weapons, or “killer robots” as headline writers may prefer, and to begin considering new governance frameworks for biotechnology and neurotechnology…(More)”.

Enlightenment’s dimming light


Anthony Painter at the RSA: “…The project of the Enlightenment is dimming and more of the same values and the political economy and society they surface cannot enable us to resolve the global problems we face. One America is already too much and with China heading that way in consumption and environmental degradation terms the global impacts will be devastating. Something must evolve and fast if we are not to crash into these limits that have become apparent. COP26 was a step; many, many more are required. First there was the unravelling, but unless we face it then there will be reckoning – for many, though innocent, there already is.

There is a volume of documentary evidence behind the nature of these multiple crises. Whilst we should constantly remind ourselves of the depth of the challenge, and it is at scale, there are two urgent questions that are needed if we are to find a way through. In the words of Arundhati Roy, who do we want to be at the other side – through the portal? How do we travel with that sense of purpose and deep values as we confront the future? Survival requires us as societies to rapidly learn together and evolve.

To make the transition relies on developing three inter-connected and mutually reinforcing values: home, community and democracy. Through these we will develop a sense of the ‘lifeworld’ we wish to safeguard. The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, sees the lifeworld as a space of human interaction and civic community and see its interface with big systems of money and power – human creations but distinct forces from the ‘lifeworld’ – as the critical site of human progress and well-being. Creativity happens at the frontier between the lifeworld and big systems.

What is meant by ‘home’? Some elements of home are in proximity. They are our close relations, those we care for directly and receive care from, as deep commitment rather than reciprocated self-interest. Home is a state of what Michael Tomasello has termed, collective intentionality. Any account of the future will need to have a convincing account of close relations. Increasingly these relationships are mediated by technology and we need to develop a more conscious account of how technology can and should act as a bond rather than a thinner of human relations.

There are seemingly more distant aspects of ‘home’ too – most particularly the natural environmental into which we are woven. And there we have been committing acts of domestic harm: polluting the atmosphere, depleting the stock of species, and poisoning the water and the ground with toxic waste. This two century long destructive streak is now visible and realised. There is a common understanding that change must come: but how and how rapidly? How can we develop an even greater collective sense of the need for rapid and radical change? And how can we begin to evolve systems of money, power and technology to respond to this new ‘common sense’? How can our future be one that regenerates nature as well as ourselves?…(More)”

Why people believe misinformation and resist correction


TechPolicyPress: “…In Nature, a team of nine researchers from the fields of psychology, mass media & communication have published a review of available research on the factors that lead people to “form or endorse misinformed views, and the psychological barriers” to changing their minds….

The authors summarize what is known about a variety of drivers of false beliefs, noting that they “generally arise through the same mechanisms that establish accurate beliefs” and the human weakness for trusting the “gut”. For a variety of reasons, people develop shortcuts when processing information, often defaulting to conclusions rather than evaluating new information critically. A complex set of variables related to information sources, emotional factors and a variety of other cues can lead to the formation of false beliefs. And, people often share information with little focus on its veracity, but rather to accomplish other goals- from self-promotion to signaling group membership to simply sating a desire to ‘watch the world burn’.

Source: Nature Reviews: Psychology, Volume 1, January 022

Barriers to belief revision are also complex, since “the original information is not simply erased or replaced” once corrective information is introduced. There is evidence that misinformation can be “reactivated and retrieved” even after an individual receives accurate information that contradicts it. A variety of factors affect whether correct information can win out. One theory looks at how information is integrated in a person’s “memory network”. Another complementary theory looks at “selective retrieval” and is backed up by neuro-imaging evidence…(More)”.

The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer


Edelman: “The world is failing to meet the unprecedented challenges of our time because it is ensnared in a vicious cycle of distrust. Four interlocking forces drive this cycle, thwarting progress on climate change, global pandemic management, racism and mounting tensions between China and the U.S. Left unchecked, the following four forces, evident in the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, will undermine institutions and further destabilize society:  

  • Government-media distrust spiral. Two institutions people rely on for truth are doing a dangerous tango of short-term mutual advantage, with exaggeration and division to gain clicks and votes.
  • Excessive reliance on business. Government failure has created an over-reliance on business to fill the void, a job that private enterprise was not designed to deliver.
  • Mass-class divide. The global pandemic has widened the fissure that surfaced in the wake of the Great Recession. High-income earners have become more trusting of institutions, while lower-income earners remain wary.
  • Failure of leadership. Classic societal leaders in government, the media and business have been discredited. Trust, once hierarchical, has become local and dispersed as people rely on my employer, my colleagues, my family. Coinciding with this upheaval is a collapse of trust within democracies and a trust surge within autocracies.

The media business model has become dependent on generating partisan outrage, while the political model has become dependent on exploiting it. Whatever short-term benefits either institution derives, it is a long-term catastrophe for society. Distrust is now society’s default emotion, with nearly 60 percent inclined to distrust…(More)”.

Navigating Trust in Society,


Report by Coeuraj: “This report provides empirical evidence of existing levels of trust, among the US population, with regard to institutions, and philanthropy—all shaped during a time of deep polarization and a global pandemic.

The source of the data is two-fold. Firstly, a year-over-year analysis of institutional trust, as measured by Global Web Index USA from more than 20,000 respondents and, secondly, an ad-hoc nationally representative survey, conducted by one of Coeuraj’s data partners AudienceNet, in the two weeks immediately preceding the 2021 United Nations General Assembly. This report presents the core findings that emerged from both research initiatives….(More)”.

The Biden Administration Embraces “Democracy Affirming Technologies”


Article by Marc Rotenberg: “…But amidst the ongoing struggle between declining democracies and emerging authoritarian governments, the Democracy Summit was notable for at least one new initiative – the support for democracy affirming technology. According to the White House, the initiative “aims to galvanize worldwide a new class of technologies” that can support democratic values.  The White House plan is to bring together innovators, investors, researchers, and entrepreneurs to “embed democratic values.”  The President’s top science advisor Eric Lander provided more detail. Democratic values, he said, include “privacy, freedom of expression, access to information, transparency, fairness, inclusion, and equity.”

In order to spur more rapid technological progress the White House Office of Science and Technology announced three Grand Challenges for Democracy-Affirming Technologies. They are:

  • A collaboration between U.S. and UK agencies to promote “privacy enhancing technologies” that “harness the power of data in a secure manner that protects privacy and intellectual property, enabling cross-border and cross-sector collaboration to solve shared challenges.”
  • Censorship circumvention tools, based on peer-to-peer techniques that enable content-sharing and communication without an Internet or cellular connection. The Open Technology Fund, an independent NGO, will invite international participants to compete on promising P2P technologies to counter Internet shutdowns.
  • A Global Entrepreneurship Challenge will seek to identify entrepreneurs who build and advance democracy-affirming technologies through a set of regional startup and scaleup competitions in countries spanning the democratic world. According to the White House, specific areas of innovation may include: data for policymaking, responsible AI and machine learning, fighting misinformation, and advancing government transparency and accessibility of government data and services.

USAID Administrator Samantha Powers said her agency would spend 20 million annually to expand digital democracy work. “We’ll use these funds to help partner nations align their rules governing the use of technology with democratic principles and respect for human rights,” said the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Notably, Powers also said the U.S. will take a closer look at export practices to “prevent technologies from falling into hands that would misuse them.” The U.S., along with Denmark, Norway, and Australia, will launch a new Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative. Powers also seeks to align surveillance practices of democratic nations with the Universal Declaration for Human Rights….(More)”.

Technology and the Global Struggle for Democracy


Essay by Manuel Muniz: “The commemoration of the first anniversary of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump showed that the extreme political polarization that fueled the riot also frames Americans’ interpretations of it. It would, however, be gravely mistaken to view what happened as a uniquely American phenomenon with uniquely American causes. The disruption of the peaceful transfer of power that day was part of something much bigger.

As part of the commemoration, President Joe Biden said that a battle is being fought over “the soul of America.” What is becoming increasingly clear is that this is also true of the international order: its very soul is at stake. China is rising and asserting itself. Populism is widespread in the West and major emerging economies. And chauvinistic nationalism has re-emerged in parts of Europe. All signs point to increasing illiberalism and anti-democratic sentiment around the world.

Against this backdrop, the US hosted in December a (virtual) “Summit for Democracy” that was attended by hundreds of national and civil-society leaders. The message of the gathering was clear: democracies must assert themselves firmly and proactively. To that end, the summit devoted numerous sessions to studying the digital revolution and its potentially harmful implications for our political systems.

Emerging technologies pose at least three major risks for democracies. The first concerns how they structure public debate. Social networks balkanize public discourse by segmenting users into ever smaller like-minded communities. Algorithmically-driven information echo chambers make it difficult to build social consensus. Worse, social networks are not liable for the content they distribute, which means they can allow misinformation to spread on their platforms with impunity…(More)”.

Updated Selected Readings on Inaccurate Data, Half-Truths, Disinformation, and Mob Violence


By Fiona Cece, Uma Kalkar, Stefaan Verhulst, and Andrew J. Zahuranec

As part of an ongoing effort to contribute to current topics in data, technology, and governance, The GovLab’s Selected Readings series provides an annotated and curated collection of recommended works on themes such as open data, data collaboration, and civic technology.

In this edition, we reflect on the one-year anniversary of the January 6, 2021 Capitol Hill Insurrection and its implications of disinformation and data misuse to support malicious objectives. This selected reading builds on the previous edition, published last year, on misinformation’s effect on violence and riots. Readings are listed in alphabetical order. New additions are highlighted in green. 

The mob attack on the US Congress was alarming and the result of various efforts to undermine the trust in and legitimacy of longstanding democratic processes and institutions. The use of inaccurate data, half-truths, and disinformation to spread hate and division is considered a key driver behind last year’s attack. Altering data to support conspiracy theories or challenging and undermining the credibility of trusted data sources to allow for alternative narratives to flourish, if left unchallenged, has consequences — including the increased acceptance and use of violence both offline and online.

The January 6th insurrection was unfortunately not a unique event, nor was it contained to the United States. While efforts to bring perpetrators of the attack to justice have been fruitful, much work remains to be done to address the willful dissemination of disinformation online. Below, we provide a curation of findings and readings that illustrate the global danger of inaccurate data, half-truths, and disinformation. As well, The GovLab, in partnership with the OECD, has explored data-actionable questions around how disinformation can spread across and affect society, and ways to mitigate it. Learn more at disinformation.the100questions.org.

To suggest additional readings on this or any other topic, please email info@thelivinglib.org. All our Selected Readings can be found here.

Readings and Annotations

Al-Zaman, Md. Sayeed. “Digital Disinformation and Communalism in Bangladesh.” China Media Research 15, no. 2 (2019): 68–76.

  • Md. Sayeed Al-Zaman, Lecturer at Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh, discusses how the country’s increasing number of “netizens” are being manipulated by online disinformation and inciting violence along religious lines. Social media helps quickly spread Anti-Hindu and Buddhist rhetoric, inflaming religious divisions between these groups and Bangladesh’s Muslim majority, impeding possibilities for “peaceful coexistence.”
  • Swaths of online information make it difficult to fact-check, and alluring stories that feed on people’s fear and anxieties are highly likely to be disseminated, leading to a spread of rumors across Bangladesh. Moreover, disruptors and politicians wield religion to target citizens’ emotionality and create violence.
  • Al-Zaman recounts two instances of digital disinformation and communalism. First, in 2016, following a Facebook post supposedly criticizing Islam, riots destroyed 17 templates and 100 houses in Nasrinagar and led to protests in neighboring villages. While the exact source of the disinformation post was never confirmed, a man was beaten and jailed for it despite robust evidence of his wrongdoing. Second, in 2012, after a Facebook post circulated an image of someone desecrating the Quran tagged a Buddhist youth in the picture, 12 Buddhist monasteries and 100 houses in Ramu were destroyed. Through social media, a mob of over 6,000 people, including local Muslim community leaders, attacked the town of Ramu. Later investigation found that the image had been doctored and spread by an Islamic extremist group member in a coordinated attack, manipulating Islamic religious sentiment via fake news to target Buddhist minorities.

Banaji, Shakuntala, and Ram Bhat. “WhatsApp Vigilantes: An exploration of citizen reception and circulation of WhatsApp misinformation linked to mob violence in India.” London School of Economics and Political Science, 2019.

  • London School of Economics and Political Science Associate Professor Shakuntala Banaji and Researcher Ram Bhat articulate how discriminated groups (Dalits, Muslims, Christians, and Adivasis) have been targeted by peer-to-peer communications spreading allegations of bovine related issues, child-snatching, and organ harvesting, culminating in violence against these groups with fatal consequences.
  • WhatsApp messages work in tandem with ideas, tropes, messages, and stereotypes already in the public domain, providing “verification” of fake news.
  • WhatsApp use is gendered, and users are predisposed to believe misinformation and spread misinformation, particularly if it targets a discriminated group that they already have negative and discriminatory feelings towards.
  • Among most WhatsApp users, civic trust is based on ideological, family, and community ties.
  • Restricting sharing, tracking, and reporting of misinformation using “beacon” features and imposing penalties on groups can serve to mitigate the harmful effects of fake news.

Funke, Daniel, and Susan Benkelman. “Misinformation is inciting violence around the world. And tech platforms don’t seem to have a plan to stop it.” Poynter, April 4, 2019.

  • Misinformation leading to violence has been on the rise worldwide. PolitiFact writer Daniel Funke and Susan Benkelman, former Director of Accountability Journalism at the American Press Institute, point to mob violence against Romas in France after rumors of kidnapping attempts circulated on Facebook and Snapchat; the immolation of two men in Puebla, Mexico following fake news spread on Whatsapp of a gang of organ harvesters on the prowl; and false kidnapping claims sent through Whatsapp fueling lynch mobs in India.
  • Slow (re)action to fake news allows mis/disinformation to prey on vulnerable people and infiltrate society. Examples covered in the article discuss how fake news preys on older Americans who lack strong digital literacy. Virulent online rumors have made it difficult for citizens to separate fact from fiction during the Indian general election. Foreign adversaries like Russia are bribing Facebook users for their accounts in order to spread false political news in Ukraine.
  • The article notes that increases in violence caused by disinformation are doubly enabled by “a lack of proper law enforcement” and inaction by technology companies. Facebook, Youtube, and Whatsapp have no coordinated, comprehensive plans to fight fake news and attempt to shift responsibility to “fact-checking partners.” Troublingly, it appears that some platforms deliberately delay the removal of mis/disinformation to attract more engagement. Only once facing intense pressure from policymakers does it seem that these companies remove misleading information.

Kyaw, Nyi Nyi. “Facebooking in Myanmar: From Hate Speech to Fake News to Partisan Political Communication.” ISEAS — Yusof Ishak Institute, no. 36 (2019): 1–10.

  • In the past decade, the number of plugged-in Myanmar citizens has skyrocketed to 39% of the population. All of these 21 million internet users are active on Facebook, where much political rhetoric occurs. Widespread fake news disseminated through Facebook has led to an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and the spread of misleading, inflammatory headlines.
  • Attempts to curtail fake news on Facebook are difficult. In Myanmar, a developing country where “the rule of law is weak,” monitoring and regulation on social media is not easily enforceable. Criticism from Myanmar and international governments and civil society organizations resulted in Facebook banning and suspending fake news accounts and pages and employing stricter, more invasive monitoring of citizen Facebook use — usually without their knowledge. However, despite Facebook’s key role in agitating and spreading fake news, no political or oversight bodies have “explicitly held the company accountable.”
  • Nyi Nyi Kyaw, Visiting Fellow at the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, notes a cyber law initiative set in motion by the Myanmar government to strengthen social media monitoring methods but is wary of Myanmar’s “human and technological capacity” to enforce these regulations.

Lewandowsky, Stephan, & Sander van der Linden. “Countering Misinformation and Fake News Through Inoculation and Prebunking.” European Review of Social Psychology 32, no. 2, (2020): 348-384.

  • Researchers Stephan Lewandowsky and Sander van der Linden present a scan of conventional instances and tools to combat misinformation. They note the staying power and spread of sensational sound bites, especially in the political arena, and their real-life consequences on problems such as anti-vaccination campaigns, ethnically-charged violence in Myanmar, and mob lynchings in India spurred by Whatsapp rumors.
  • To proactively stop misinformation, the authors introduce the psychological theory of “inoculation,” which forewarns people that they have been exposed to misinformation and alerts them to the ways by which they could be misled to make them more resilient to false information. The paper highlights numerous successes of inoculation in combating misinformation and presents it as a strategy to prevent disinformation-fueled violence.
  • The authors then discuss best strategies to deploy fake news inoculation and generate “herd” cognitive immunity in the face of microtargeting and filter bubbles online.

Osmundsen, Mathias, Alexander Bor, Peter Bjerregaard Vahlstrup, Anja Bechmann, and Michael Bang Petersen. “Partisan polarization is the primary psychological motivation behind “fake news” sharing on Twitter.” American Political Science Review, 115, no.3, (2020): 999-1015.

  • Mathias Osmundsen and colleagues explore the proliferation of fake news on digital platforms. Are those who share fake news “ignorant and lazy,” malicious actors, or playing political games online? Through a psychological mapping of over 2,000 Twitter users across 500,000 stories, the authors find that disruption and polarization fuel fake news dissemination more so than ignorance.
  • Given the increasingly polarized American landscape, spreading fake news can help spread “partisan feelings,” increase interparty social and political cohesion, and call supporters to incideniary and violent action. Thus, misinformation prioritizes usefulness to reach end goals over accuracy and veracity of information.
  • Overall, the authors find that those with low political awareness and media literacy are the least likely to share fake news. While older individuals were more likely to share fake news, the inability to identify real versus fake information was not a major contributor of motivating the spread of misinformation. 
  • For the most part, those who share fake news are knowledgeable about the political sphere and online spaces. They are primarily motivated to ‘troll’ or create online disruption, or to further their partisan stance. In the United States, right-leaning individuals are more likely to follow fake news because they “must turn to more extreme news sources” to find information aligned with their politics, while left-leaning people can find more credible sources from liberal and centrist outlets.

Piazza, James A. “Fake news: the effects of social media disinformation on domestic terrorism.” Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict (2021): 1-23.

  • James A. Piazza of Pennsylvania State University examines the role of online misinformation in driving distrust, political extremism, and political violence. He reviews some of the ongoing literature on online misinformation and disinformation in driving these and other adverse outcomes.
  • Using data on incidents of terrorism from the Global Terrorism Database and three independent measures of disinformation derived from the Digital Society Project, Piazza finds “disinformation propagated through online social media outlets is statistically associated with increases in domestic terrorism in affected countries. The impact of disinformation on terrorism is mediated, significantly and substantially, through increased political polarization.”
  • Piazza notes that his results support other literature that shows the real-world effects of online disinformation. He emphasizes the need for further research and investigation to better understand the issue.

Posetti, Julie, Nermine Aboulez, Kalina Bontcheva, Jackie Harrison, and Silvio Waisbord. “Online violence Against Women Journalists: A Global Snapshot of Incidence and Impacts.” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2020.

  • The survey focuses on incidence, impacts, and responses to online violence against women journalists that are a result of “coordinated disinformation campaigns leveraging misogyny and other forms of hate speech. There were 901 respondents, hailing from 125 countries, and covering various ethnicities.
  • 73% of women journalists reported facing online violence and harassment in the course of their work, suggesting escalating gendered violence against women in online media.
  • The impact of COVID-19 and populist politics is evident in the gender-based harassment and disinformation campaigns, the source of which is traced to political actors (37%) or anonymous/troll accounts (57%).
  • Investigative reporting on gender issues, politics and elections, immigration and human rights abuses, or fake news itself seems to attract online retaliation and targeted disinformation campaigns against the reporters.

Rajeshwari, Rema. “Mob Lynching and Social Media.” Yale Journal of International Affairs, June 1, 2019.

  • District Police Chief of Jogulamba Gadwal, India, and Yale World Fellow (’17) Rema Rajeshwari writes about how misinformation and disinformation are becoming a growing problem and security threat in India. The fake news phenomenon has spread hatred, fueled sectarian tensions, and continues to diminish social trust in society.
  • One example of this can be found in Jogulamba Gadwal, where videos and rumors were spread throughout social media about how the Parthis, a stigmatized tribal group, were committing acts of violence in the village. This led to a series of mob attacks and killings — “thirty-three people were killed in sixty-nine mob attacks since January 2018 due to rumors” — that could be traced to rumors spread on social media.
  • More importantly, however, Rajeshwari elaborates on how self-regulation and local campaigns can be used as an effective intervention for mis/dis-information. As a police officer, Rajeshwari fought a battle that was both online and on the ground, including the formation of a group of “tech-savvy” cops who could monitor local social media content and flag inaccurate and/or malicious posts, and mobilizing local WhatsApp groups alongside village headmen who could encourage community members to not forward fake messages. These interventions effectively combined local traditions and technology to achieve an “early warning-focused deterrence.”

Taylor, Luke. “Covid-19 Misinformation Sparks Threats and Violence against Doctors in Latin America.” BMJ (2020): m3088.

  • Journalist Luke Taylor details the many incidents of how disinformation campaigns across Latin America have resulted in the mistreatment of health care workers during the Coronavirus pandemic. Examining case studies from Mexico and Colombia, Taylor finds that these mis/disinformation campaigns have resulted in health workers receiving death threats and being subject to acts of aggression.
  • One instance of this link between disinformation and acts of aggression are the 47 reported cases of aggression towards health workers in Mexico and 265 reported complaints against health workers as well. The National Council to Prevent Discrimination noted these acts were the result of a loss of trust in government and government institutions, which was further exacerbated by conspiracy theories that circulated WhatsApp and other social media channels.
  • Another example of false narratives can be seen in Colombia, where a politician theorized that a “covid cartel” of doctors were admitting COVID-19 patients to ICUs in order to receive payments (e.g., a cash payment of ~17,000 Columbian pesos for every dead patient with a covid-19 diagnosis). This false narrative of doctors being incentivized to increase beds for COVID-19 patients quickly spread across social media platforms, resulting in many of those who were ill to avoid seeking care. This rumor also led to doctors in Colombia receiving death threats and intimidation acts.

“The Danger of Fake News in Inflaming or Suppressing Social Conflict.” Center for Information Technology and Society — University of California Santa Barbara, n.d.

  • The article provides case studies of how fake news can be used to intensify social conflict for political gains (e.g., by distracting citizens from having a conversation about critical issues and undermining the democratic process).
  • The cases elaborated upon are 1) Pizzagate: a fake news story that linked human trafficking to a presidential candidate and a political party, and ultimately led to a shooting; 2) Russia’s Internet Research Agency: Russian agents created social media accounts to spread fake news that favored Donald Trump during the 2016 election, and even instigated online protests about social issues (e.g., a BLM protest); and 3) Cambridge Analytica: a British company that used unauthorized social media data for sensationalistic and inflammatory targeted US political advertisements.
  • Notably, it points out that fake news undermines a citizen’s ability to participate in the democratic process and make accurate decisions in important elections.

Tworek, Heidi. “Disinformation: It’s History.” Center for International Governance Innovation, July 14, 2021.

  • While some public narratives frame online disinformation and its influence on real-world violence as “unprecedented and unparalleled” to occurrences in the past. Professor Heidi Tworek of the University of British Columbia points out that “assumptions about the history of disinformation” have (and continue to) influence policymaking to combat fake news. She argues that today’s unprecedented events are rooted in tactics similar to those of the past, such as how Finnish policymakers invested in national communications strategy to fight foreign disinformation coming from Russia and the Soviet Union.
  • She emphasizes the power of learning from historical events to guide modern methods of fighting political misinformation. Connecting today’s concerns of election fraud, foreign interference, and conspiracy theories to those of the past, such as “funding magazines [and] spreading rumors” on Soviet and American practices during the Cold War to further anti-opposition sentiment and hatred reinforces that disinformation is a long-standing problem.

Ward, Megan, and Jessica Beyer. “Vulnerable Landscapes: Case Studies of Violence and Disinformation” Wilson Center, August 2019.

  • This article discusses instances where disinformation inflamed already existing social, political, and ideological cleavages, and ultimately caused violence. Specifically, it elaborates on instances from the US-Mexico border, India, Sri Lanka, and during the course of three Latin American elections.
  • Though the cases are meant to be illustrative and highlight the spread of disinformation globally, the violence in these cases was shown to be affected by the distinct social fabric of each place. Their findings lend credence to the idea that disinformation helped spark violence in places that were already vulnerable and tense.
  • Indeed, now that disinformation can be so quickly distributed using social media, coupled with declining trust in public institutions, low levels of media literacy, meager actions taken by social media companies, and government actors who exploit disinformation for political gain, there has been a rise of these cases globally. It is an interaction of factors such as distrust in traditional media and public institutions, lack of content moderation on social media, and ethnic divides that render societies vulnerable and susceptible to violence.
  • One example of this is at the US/Mexico border, where disinformation campaigns have built on pre-existing xenophobia, and have led to instances of mob-violence and mass shootings. Inflamed by disinformation campaigns that migrant caravans contain criminals (e.g., invasion narratives often used to describe migrant caravans), the armed group United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) impersonated law enforcement and detained migrants at the US border, often turning them over to border officials. UCP has since been arrested by the FBI for impersonating law enforcement.

We welcome other sources we may have missed — please share any suggested additions with us at datastewards [at] thegovlab.org or The GovLab on Twitter.

Technology and democracy: a paradox wrapped in a contradiction inside an irony


Paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and Peter Pomerantsev: “Democracy is in retreat around the globe. Many commentators have blamed the Internet for this development, whereas others have celebrated the Internet as a tool for liberation, with each opinion being buttressed by supporting evidence. We try to resolve this paradox by reviewing some of the pressure points that arise between human cognition and the online information architecture, and their fallout for the well-being of democracy. We focus on the role of the attention economy, which has monetised dwell time on platforms, and the role of algorithms that satisfy users’ presumed preferences. We further note the inherent asymmetry in power between platforms and users that arises from these pressure points, and we conclude by sketching out the principles of a new Internet with democratic credentials….(More)”.

Checks in the Balance: Legislative Capacity and the Dynamics of Executive Power


Book by Alexander Bolton and Sharece Thrower: “The specter of unbridled executive power looms large in the American political imagination. Are checks and balances enough to constrain ambitious executives? Checks in the Balance presents a new theory of separation of powers that brings legislative capacity to the fore, explaining why Congress and state legislatures must possess both the opportunities and the means to constrain presidents and governors—and why, without these tools, executive power will prevail.

Alexander Bolton and Sharece Thrower reveal how legislative capacity—which they conceive of as the combination of a legislature’s resources and policymaking powers—is the key to preventing the accumulation of power in the hands of an encroaching executive. They show how low-capacity legislatures face difficulties checking the executive through mechanisms such as discretion and oversight, and how presidents and governors unilaterally bypass such legislative adversaries to impose their will. When legislative capacity is high, however, the legislative branch can effectively stifle executives. Bolton and Thrower draw on a wealth of historical evidence on congressional capacity, oversight, discretion, and presidential unilateralism. They also examine thousands of gubernatorial executive orders, demonstrating how varying capacity in the states affects governors’ power.

Checks in the Balance affirms the centrality of legislatures in tempering executive power—and sheds vital new light on how and why they fail….(More)”.