Pollution

Health to politics — world’s ‘information pollution’ is increasing. Media needs a purge

Key trends included a consensus that propaganda is currently out of control, driven by the weaponization of cloud-based technologies. This dynamic results in social divisions, while threatening rational dialogue and “evidence-based policymaking”.

This research uncovered the significant influence of “polluting actors” exporting false narratives across geographies and influencing the digital conversation around COVID-19 and vaccines. The implications of this research are clear: Though the digital sphere serves as an essential “public square” for the rapid exchange of critical information, the integrity and quality of this information vary in their reliability due to a multitude of tech-related and health-related factors. This type of intelligence is critical in informing institutional responses to these ecosystem-level challenges.


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Synthetic media and digital counterfeits

As variants of the coronavirus prolong the pandemic, accelerating digitization and hybrid-remote workforces will continue to expand attack vectors for businesses and individuals. Weaponized disinformation in the form of deepfake audio has already, in a few recent instances, been used to execute sophisticated cyberattacks like phishing and business email compromise (BEC) that dupe victims into unwittingly making financial transactions or sharing sensitive corporate data.

As well as such synthetic media, digitally produced counterfeits transacted in the online sphere will also prove fruitful for threat actors. Throughout the pandemic, COVID tests and even vaccines themselves have been identified for sale online, among other COVID-related items. As discovered in Numerous 2021 reports, the black market for fake vaccination certificates is already robustly active and will likely continue to expand due to growing domestic and international restrictions on the unvaccinated.

The vulnerability of public health institutions

Forrester’s predictions for 2022 hold that healthcare will cease to occupy the so-called “trusted category” as misinformation and cyberattacks persist, noting that: “The spread of false health information, shortcomings in data integrity and the politicization of science will unseat healthcare from its standing as a trusted industry.”

As noted in the aforementioned UNDP report, factors such as the speed of vaccination roll-outs as well as the many unknowns regarding COVID-19 contribute to an environment of uncertainty in which the credibility and legitimacy of authoritative institutions are forced to compete with a new wave of influential online actors in the social media and alt-media sphere.

Erroneous information and deficient trust result in tangible public health inefficiencies, jeopardizing critical social gains and prolonging the pandemic. This is currently being witnessed in several countries struggling with rising rates of vaccine hesitancy, contributing to lagging vaccine roll-outs.

Digital media, especially social media, has connected the world in ways never imaginable – but this expanded global reach brings forth increased levels of information pollution from limitless cross-border sources that cloud critical information flows. A complex ecosystem of interconnected digital citizens requires structural, multilayered solutions to combat newly empowered threat actors seeking to wreak havoc during times of global vulnerability such as the pandemic.


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This article previously appeared in the World Economic Forum.

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