Gemma Acton: The importance of trust in institutions at a time of fake news, fake videos and misinformation

Headshot of Gemma Acton
Gemma Acton
The Nightly
Twitter has come under fire on issues of trust and fake news in the wake of the 2016 US election. (AP PHOTO)
Twitter has come under fire on issues of trust and fake news in the wake of the 2016 US election. (AP PHOTO) Credit: AP

Like dozens of financial journalists from around the world, I’m lucky enough to be spending the third week of January admiring the breath taking beauty of the Swiss Alps.

I’m a little away from the action on my once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon but my peers have all returned to the nearby ski town of Davos where the world’s powerbrokers are hobnobbing for the 54th year running. In years gone by, everyone from Bill Clinton to Nelson Mandela to Bono has attended the January World Economic Forum conference.

This year 100 governments have sent senior officials while the bosses of Australia’s biggest mining giants, including Rio Tinto and BHP, are also expected to attend.

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The theme for 2024 is looking at new technologies — both at the opportunities they throw up as well as how they will impact decision-making and global relations.

It’s all in the name of the official theme: “rebuilding trust”.

Such a discussion doesn’t come a day too soon with around 2 billion adults around the world set to vote for their leaders this year, including in major countries such as the US, UK, India and Indonesia. Remember in 2016 when we received the rude shock of how social media could affect elections?

Following the US showdown which brought Donald Trump to power, platforms like Facebook and Twitter came under fire for allowing misinformation, fake news and targeted political ads to proliferate and enable foreign actors to sway the course of democracy in the world’s largest economy — the self-appointed “leader of the free world”.

Well, 2024 promises to be a much wilder ride. Australia doesn’t head to the Federal polls again until next year but we should keep a close eye on how this year’s global elections pan out. Deep fake videos — where malevolent actors have used technology to make it look as though a political candidate or campaigner is saying or doing something scandalous — are getting more convincing by the day.

They create two problems. Firstly, the obvious issue of millions of people incorrectly believing a candidate has done or said something damning when they haven’t. Secondly, the possibility for someone who really is caught on tape doing or saying something terrible being able to claim it wasn’t them but a deep fake manipulation. This latter problem has become a defence used increasingly often, so much so it’s now got its own name, “the liar’s dividend”.

Both outcomes make it very hard for us, the voting public, to know whom or what to trust.

It makes sense that the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks report released in conjunction with this year’s Davos conference highlights “misinformation and disinformation” as the biggest risk facing the world over the next two years.

Last year, this risk didn’t even make the top 10 concerns, in a list dominated by the cost-of-living crisis and environmental worries.

And yet already last year, trust was on shaky ground both around the world and closer to home. According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, only 54 per cent of high income Australians trusted authorities across business, government, non-governmental organisations and the media.

For low income Australians, the figure was even lower — just 43 per cent. The updated barometer for 2024 will be released this week, letting us know whether our faith has deteriorated further over the past year.

Does it matter if our trust in institutions is rattled? Absolutely. Losing trust in our institutions raises the likelihood of more people turning to sources which disseminate falsehoods for their own gains.

Often the goal is to polarise society, break down communities and increase feelings of loneliness and marginalisation. Among other clear problems with this, it makes us more prone to accidentally voting against our own interests, including financial.

It also makes us more susceptible to abuses of our trust like scams. Scam victims are sadly often those who engage with criminals due to loneliness. Last year alone in Australia, more than 280,000 reports of scams were lodged with $455 million lost.

Many more people are simply too embarrassed to report that they’ve fallen victim to a scam so the numbers are undoubtedly far higher.

An obvious starting point to address the misinformation threat is for the technology giants — platforms like Meta (formerly Facebook) and X (formerly Twitter) to try harder to stamp out the rapidly multiplying attempts to thwart our access to the truth.

And for governments to do their part through regulation to force these immensely powerful — and free — content distribution agents to devote more resources to stopping lies proliferating and implementing stricter guidelines around who signs up for an account.

Traditional media organisations are still subject to notably higher standards. But it’s deeply unrealistic to assume this will happen in time for this year’s elections — or even our own next year.

For one thing, X’s billionaire owner Elon Musk has decimated the platform’s global trust and safety response since taking over in 2022, reducing the staffing numbers in those teams by almost a third, according to the Australian online safety commissioner.

Regardless of what is ultimately discussed or agreed in Davos, there remains a greater responsibility on us to apply a critical eye to information as it swarms in during the lead up to our own Federal election and find sources into which we feel comfortable putting our trust.

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