The Case for a “Disinformation CERN”

To help answer these questions, Washington DC’s Capitol insurrection of 6 January needs to be examined more closely.

The other problem for research is that private companies hold most of the relevant data and are unwilling to share it widely. The platforms regard their data as valuable proprietary information and to date have only been willing to share small amounts with handpicked research institutions on particular cases.

A well-funded, multinational research effort could help spearhead a broad-based, collaborative approach with the digital information industry that holds the bulk of data on information transmission and user behavior. The big search engines, social media platforms, television networks, public broadcasters and newspapers of record should all be included.

On the question of how much such research would cost and who would lead it, Wanless said she’s costed a number of models that start from US$10 million per year for basic research and rise from there. Given the cost of disinformation to economies and societies—How much has Covid-19-related disinformation alone cost in terms of loss of life and income?—it seems like a miniscule investment compared to what Western democracies spend on military hardware.

Wanless believes that platforms should in some way be involved in funding this research and that discussions around taxes on them should be taking this into account. But the effort should probably be led by academic institutions and civil society rather than the national security community.

Braw agreed with Wanless that better research is critical, but so is building whole-of-society resilience, starting immediately. If this isn’t done, responses to disinformation crises risk continually exacerbating their initial effects, until societies are caught in a spin-cycle of chaotic reaction.

Democracies need to get out of their defensive postures. Disinformation cannot be beaten with de-platforming and labelling. We need to get better at public messaging and be in constant preparation for crisis communication. When Covid-19 hit, governments should have been ready to go with public communication and planning for food, water, energy and fuel shortages.

A good example of multilateral cooperation and public communication on a grey-zone crisis, said Braw, was the 2018 poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia using the chemical weapon Novichok in the UK. The UK was able to quickly stand up an informal alliance of countries that expelled Russian diplomats and censured and sanctioned Moscow.

Companies are on the front line of disinformation and grey zone operations, and they need to be consistently involved in a whole-of-society response. But it’s important to note, according to Wanless, the private sector is part of the problem. There’s money and power to be generated by inflaming fear and uncertainty.

Braw waxed nostalgic about the early days of social media—visiting the offices of Twitter when it was just a handful of guys and a few computers. Governments completely failed to see how these platforms would transform politics, change the nature of governance and even threaten democratic institutions.

To add to the challenge, domestic political actors are increasingly getting in on the disinformation action and have no real incentives to neutralize its effects.

In terms of constraints, international law is much too vague on the subject of propaganda and there are no strong agreed guidelines that platforms can implement. So while state regulation may be an old-fashioned, ‘European’ response, said Braw, it’s probably the only effective way forward. Building a multilateral approach to regulating a decentralized, global information space will be the critical factor for success in the fight against disinformation.

Anastasia Kapetas is national security editor at The Strategist. This article is published courtesy of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).