World Economic Forum Warns Of “Digital Widlfire” Global Threat

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Spread of false information over social networks a major cause for concern in coming years

One of the biggest threats facing the world moving into 2013 is that of “digital wildfire”, where misinformation spread over the Internet leads to real-world danger.

That’s according to Swiss non-profit the World Economic Forum, which released its Global Risks 2013 report today. After interviewing 1,000 industry leaders and risk experts, the spread of false information across the Web ranks alongside economic failures, environmental dangers, disease and others as the top global threats of today.

The World Economic Forum ranked severe income disparity and unsustainable government debt as the top two risks, however. Cyber attacks were ranked as the sixth most imminent threat, having been ranked fifth in 2012, but in its three case studies of major risks, digital wildfire was noted as a big concern.

World Economic Forum warning

The world got a glimpse of how actions on the Internet can escalate into eruptions of violence last year, when a video, called the “Innocence of Muslims”, thought to be blasphemous to Islam, emerged on YouTube. It led to protests across Middle East nations, one of which resulted in the death of  US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, although terrorist cells have been blamed for their part in the violence. YouTube is currently blocked in Pakistan as a result of the video.

“The global risk of massive digital misinformation sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyber attacks and the failure of global governance,” the WEF report read.

“While the benefits of this are obvious and well documented, our hyperconnected world could also enable the rapid viral spread of information that is either intentionally or unintentionally misleading or provocative, with serious consequences.

“The real-world equivalent is shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre – even if it takes only a minute or two for realization to spread that there is no fire, in that time people may already have been crushed to death in a scramble for the exit.”

There is the potential for misinformation to cause serious economic impact too. Fake tweets have “moved markets”, WEF said. It pointed to a Twitter user who impersonated Russian interior minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev in July 2012,  tweeting that Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad was injured or killed. That caused crude oil prices to rise by over $1 before traders realised the news was false.

WEF said imposing restrictive laws would not be a positive way of extinguishing digital widlfires. Instead, social media organisations that offer a good platform for the public to post information should “evolve and ethos of responsibility and healthy scepticism”.

Preventing people from uploading, and believing, potentially inflammatory content, however, will prove more difficult given the open nature of the Internet. WEF noted that every minute, 48 hours’ worth of content is uploaded to YouTube.

WEF said technical solutions could help. “It is possible to imagine the development of more broad and sophisticated automated flags for disputed information, which could become as ubiquitous as programmes that protect Internet users against spam and malware.”

Brian Honan,  founder of the Irish Reporting and Information Security Service, Ireland’s first CERT, told TechWeekEurope governments and private organisations should do a better job of clearing up misinformation at speed.

“It is important that timely, informed and swift communications is given out by appropriate authoritative sources to challenge any false information being spread,” Honan said.

“It is also important to be able to counter false claims in an appropriate manner. This can be challenging as it means having to react in hours rather than days, as governments were used to in the past.”

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