Commentary: Will 2024 be the year fake news destroys democracy?


We have known since 2016 at least that elections in the digital age are unusually vulnerable to manipulation. While officials responsible for election integrity have been working diligently since then, they are fighting the last war.

Former US President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and other votes around that period were influenced by carefully seeded narratives, bot farms, and so on. In response, a small army of fact-checkers emerged around the world and mechanisms to keep “fake news” out of the formal press multiplied.

The experience of India – which, given that it has the most voters, is also the world’s largest lab for election malpractice – demonstrates the limits of this work. The more scrupulous fact-checkers are, the easier they can be overwhelmed with a flood of fake news. They’re also, unfortunately, human – and therefore too easy to discredit, however unfairly.

Some new ideas have begun to emerge. Even Elon Musk’s critics appear fond of the “community notes” he has added to X, formerly known as Twitter, which tag viral tweets with crowd-sourced fact-checks.

Because these are crowd-sourced, they respond organically to the amount of fake news in circulation and, because they are not associated with any individual group of fact-checkers, they are harder to dismiss as biased.

Yet technology has moved even faster. AI-based disinformation has already begun to proliferate – and gets harder to spot as fake with every passing month. Oddly, stopping such messages from going viral is harder when they don’t immediately come across as offensive or particularly pointed.

In Indonesia, for example, a TikTok video that appeared to show defense minister and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto speaking Arabic was viewed millions of times. It was an AI-generated deepfake meant to bolster his diplomatic (and possibly his Islamic) credentials.

Nor can we assume that an increasingly digital-savvy electorate will be able to navigate this new information landscape without help. If there’s one thing we have learned from the information war that has accompanied Israel’s physical battle against Hamas in Gaza, it’s that people who grew up with the internet are not those best-equipped to identify obvious propaganda. In fact, they seem to be least able to tell fact from fiction.

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