Addressing the global risk of information pollution

The Digital Public Goods Alliance Secretariat, Omidyar Network, and UNDP convened relevant experts in January 2022 for an exploratory discussion on the urgent challenge of information pollution and the threat it presents to countries worldwide – especially those that are prone to conflict and where democracy is fragile – and to discuss what can be done. The blog below was informed by that conversation.

While digital technologies are essential parts of our lives and are providing solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges, we must urgently recognise their downsides. This is particularly true when it comes to online information pollution, which has grown to be a major cause of distrust and obfuscation, blurring the lines between malicious intent, opinions, and reality. While much of the current discourse has been shaped by how to address the slow but relentless damage being done to historically stable western democracies, there is an immediate need to focus the world’s attention on what is happening in countries with weak institutions, low levels of trust, and underlying tensions. 

We have already seen online information pollution contributing to widespread violence and human rights abuses in countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia. And what we are seeing today is only a faint warning of what may come.

With an estimated 1.6 billion people or – 20% of the global population – living in places at discernable risk of armed conflict, the global community must recognise the risks and compounding complications that highly inflammatory online information pollution constitutes for human rights and peaceful co-existence. In these areas, as well as in many other slightly less volatile contexts, institutions of governance are fragile, and freedom of expression and the media are already facing enormous pressure. This is further complicated by rampant information pollution being used as a smokescreen to harass advocates, as well as fuel conflict, polarization, and populism.

Much of the concern has been brought to the forefront in western democracies, where information pollution on online platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter is causing real-world harm in the form of political violence, distrust in democratic processes, and low vaccination rates. 

For countries that are poorly resourced, with weak institutions and regulatory frameworks, the challenge to keep pace with big tech regulation is even greater for a number of reasons: small countries are less likely to be able to influence, hold accountable, or be heard by big tech; online moderation, including fact-checking, of English-language content is far better resourced than other languages; the huge volumes of content within itself is difficult to keep up with; and coordinated inauthentic behaviour is particularly hard to monitor and mitigate.

There is also the reality that, when taking action, many of these countries use information pollution as an excuse to clamp down on opposition voices, activists, and journalists, undermining fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and access to information.

There is no one size fits all policy approach for how to regulate information pollution and the technologies driving it. Social media companies must do more, and the international community needs to start pushing them to do so. We also need to address the fact that often by being near-monopolies in online communication and through their role in amplifying and circulating news, private technology platforms have become de-facto public infrastructure. In some countries, Facebook is synonymous with the internet. However, the incentives and business models of these private sector companies are resulting in outcomes that are misaligned and not in the public interest. Therefore, rather than regulating content, regulation has to start focusing on the infrastructure itself. Doing so requires moving beyond the current trend of reactive regulation and instead reimagining how these platforms should operate through normative technologies.

Understanding online information pollution as an urgent global challenge that disproportionately harms those that are already vulnerable, we will leverage the Digital Public Goods Alliance’s  community of practice model (CoP) to take immediate action. In this CoP we will convene individuals and organisations with diverse expertise and perspectives to identify the digital public goods (DPGs) that can make a difference. Given that DPGs are open source, they can be implemented relatively quickly and localised to context specific needs. They are also often considered more trustworthy as their codebases and documentation are transparent, and because the DPG Standard includes criteria related to protecting privacy and doing no harm.

We will prioritise two categories of DPGs. The first will be centred on the digital tools that can be deployed and scaled quickly to mitigate and respond to information pollution challenges. These DPGs can, for instance, help with content moderation and fact-checking that can both respond to information pollution spikes and proactively prevent them from occurring – particularly around events we know to be prone to malicious behaviour, such as elections. They can be designed with the needs of specific vulnerable populations and fragile regions in mind, with subsequent localisations to new contexts.

In parallel to this, we will identify and support existing and emerging DPGs that can serve as value-driven alternatives to traditional digital technologies and platforms. These normative alternatives will be vital for helping us reimagine a technology landscape that operates with the public interest at its core – including non-western democracies. 

Seeing how information pollution is stoking violence and undermining democracy, particularly in already fragile and conflict-prone contexts, we need to act now.