Information is now almost as vital to our survival as food. Our need to share and, crucially, validate information is a driving force. Even so, information is a double-edged sword. Humans are skilled liars. It is perhaps one of the defining features of our species. Babies lie from six months old.46
Misinformation is central to our species and the stories we tell about ourselves. We have built bastions of information to guard against lies. For most of human history, information has – for the most part – moved us towards empirical truth and shared understanding. Lies existed, but on a smaller scale. Misinformation was a theoretical question for historians. In the last decade, that has all changed. The information space we exist in, which the globalised world uses to communicate, has been corrupted. Worse, it is too big and too complex for human arbitration.
We live in an era of unregulated information. How the global flow of information is controlled, and who by, is unclear. We know that algorithms control programmatic display marketing, and we know that governments and companies are using this to try and influence people. However, we do not know the extent of the problem or how to combat it.
What we do know is that Facebook claims to have deleted 2.19 billion fake accounts in 2019.47 We know that fake news has influenced elections and contributed to the anti-vaxx movement, which has been blamed for several measles outbreaks in 2019.48
We are time-poor, and traditional news sources are struggling to compete with social media platforms. Algorithms are creating dangerous information ecosystems. They are, perhaps, even harder to combat because they do not intend to harm us. However, this selected content fuels opinion bubbles and mass movements that are insulated from challenges or questions. This is perhaps why the World Economic Forum named rising cyber dependency as one of the biggest threats to global security in their 2019 Global Risks Report.49 We rely almost entirely on our information infrastructure, and we cannot accurately track how it is being sold, who to, or why.
Globally, we risk technology wars, as different countries adopt different models of internet regulation. Can the world sustain a plurality of standards, and if not, to what extent will it generate hostility?
We live in an era of unregulated information. How the global flow of information is controlled, and who by, is unclear
Data value exchange is under debate. It is unlikely to be a quick or easy conversation. In the 2020s, states and corporates will be questioning how they should use the data they collect – and pay for.
And yet, data science and algorithmic power, used wisely, could transform our understanding of human systems. The potential is still in its infancy. Artificial Intelligence (AI) may be the only way to control and tame the diversity of information. How to do this ethically will be the next big question.