July 28, 2023 - 11:30am

Yesterday saw the start of the first ever Cambridge Disinformation Summit. The two-day event, organised by Cambridge don Alan Jagolinzer, is billed as an opportunity to bring together thinkers who share “concerns about the global existential risks of disinformation”. Attending the conference is an array of senior representatives from the World Health Organization, McKinsey, DeepMind and the Rand Corporation, with a keynote address from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. 

Conference talking points reflect the ever-diversifying concerns of disinformation. Attendees can hear about everything from the impact of “racialisation and propaganda” on the life of a refugee to overcoming a religious cult. Still, there appears to be a clear aim offered by its organiser. Professor Jagolinzer, whose background is in finance, has laid out his vision in an article introducing the event, asking why the same “infrastructure to mitigate societal harm” from manipulating information in a financial reporting setting can’t be applied to social media and journalism, where the broader social damage is “significantly greater”. 

Is Jagolinzer being wilfully naive? Infrastructure to tackle “disinformation” does, of course, already exist. Twitter has just acquiesced to the EU’s “tough” disinformation laws having previously pulled out of an agreement. In the UK, the Government has already boasted that the Online Safety Bill beefs up protection against hostile state disinformation while it routinely rejects FOI requests to its Whitehall counter-disinformation units. 

Naturally, Jagolinzer is talking about a very particular definition of disinformation, one that has emerged thanks to the revolution of the digital age. Misinformation, under that ubiquitous definition of “information intended to mislead”, saw a glut of bad fact-checking and the micro-management of opinion on social media (perpetrated by some of the conference attendees) that achieved little other than further alienating those already mistrustful of Government policy. The only thing we learnt about the modern definition of disinformation during the pandemic was that no one really knew what it meant. 

Of course, inaccurate or misleading information proliferated by all parties is a persistent source of concern. The far more difficult question for attendees at the conference, however, is how to restore trust in the institutions they represent. Harvard’s Kennedy School has already indicated that this should be a priority, casting doubt on the veracity of anti-dis/misinformation efforts by governments and NGOs in its recent research paper, recommending instead that they focus on the far more productive task of “restoring trust in reliable sources of news”. 

Will this concern hold sway at the conference? One notable speaker, Professor Sander van der Linden, author of Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects our Minds and How to Build Immunity, has become influential among the disinformation doomers. Van der Linden sees misinformation as a grave threat to society, akin to a disease to be inoculated against; he aims to expose would-be victims to its “DNA” so that they understand how they might be manipulated. Other attendees seem equally keen to use the metaphor, with one calling for a “public health level solution”. 

This prognosis and cure has unsurprisingly come in for criticism. Writing in the Boston Review, Daniel Williams described van der Linden’s methodology as “plagued by serious weaknesses”, drawing on an array of research that suggests we might not be as gullible to the threat as we seem. The very idea of an “infodemic” may itself be fake news, given that the most avid consumers of overt misinformation constitute a small minority of the population, consisting of “avid conspiracy theorists, hyper-partisans and extremists”.

Whether the conference will engage with this emerging body of research and scepticism around the fight against “disinformation” and its flaws seems doubtful. For all the summit’s talk of contagion and disease, its attendees seem oblivious to the idea that alarmism over its understanding of disinformation and its consequences is now becoming toxic and misleading in itself. 

Fred Skulthorp is a writer living in England. His Substack is Bad Apocalypse