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Defending democracies from disinformation and cyber-enabled foreign interference in the Covid-19 era

By Danielle Cave and Jacob Wallis

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unique societal stress as governments worldwide and their citizens have struggled to work together to contain the virus and mitigate its economic impact. This has been a trying time for democracies, testing the capacity of democratic governance to mobilise state and citizenry to work together. It has also tested the integrity of open information environments and the ability of these environments to deal with the overlapping challenges of disinformation, misinformation, election interference and cyber-enabled foreign interference. In this report for India's Observer Research Foundation think-tank Danielle Cave and Dr Jake Wallis analyse some of these emerging challenges while looking at both state and non-state actors manipulating the global information environment, with a particular focus on the Chinese state’s rapidly expanding interference and disinformation efforts. It also includes a series of recommendations for policymakers around the world.

COVID-19 has spurred us into a new era of disinformation where we can see the daily erosion of credible information. We are increasingly fighting for the value of facts. But the global information environment was home to bad-faith actors long before the pandemic hit, from states interfering overseas or misleading their own populations with targeted disinformation to conspiracy groups like QAnon and alt-right extremist groups. Some of these groups have leveraged legitimate public concerns related to, for example, the pandemic, vaccine rollouts and issues like data privacy to build new conspiracy theories, and COVID-19 has provided them with a bigger platform to do so.

Relationships between governments and social media platforms are increasingly strained. Divisions are deepening about how to best balance free expression while dealing with the public harms caused by mis- and disinformation and speech that incites violence or hatred, and how to best tackle rapidly emerging issues such as the proliferation of manipulated content and the risks caused by increasingly sophisticated deep fake technologies that could mislead and erode trust in institutions.

Policymakers are also increasingly frustrated at seeing authoritarian states, particularly China and Russia, leverage US social media networks and search engines to project propaganda and disinformation to an increasingly global audience. This is particularly perplexing, as the Chinese state, for instance, bans these same platforms at home and both limits access to and censors foreign embassy accounts on Chinese social media platforms.

As governments, platforms and civil society debate on how to improve and manage the online ecosystem, democracies are left with a sub-optimal public square where misinformation runs rife, conspiracy theorists can build a global audience for their content, trolls can harass and intimidate with few consequences and where authoritarian states are exploiting western platforms to reach global audiences.