January 16, 2024 - 5:10pm

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen today declared that “misinformation and disinformation” are greater threats to the global business community than war and climate change.

“For the global business community, the top concern for the next two years is not conflict or climate,” she said in her speech at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos. “It is disinformation and misinformation, followed closely by polarisation within our societies.”

The solution, according to von der Leyen, is for businesses and governments to collaborate to quash disinformation. “Many of the solutions lie not only in countries working together but, crucially, on businesses and governments, businesses and democracies working together,” she said. “While governments hold many of the levers to deal with the great challenges of our time, business have [sic] the innovation, the technology, the talents to deliver the solutions we need to fight threats like climate change or industrial-scale disinformation.”

To illustrate her point, von der Leyen mentioned the upcoming election-heavy year, calling it “the biggest electoral year in history”, and warned that bad actors may exploit the openness of democracies to influence elections with disinformation. 

In the latest WEF Global Risk Report, misinformation and disinformation were ranked as a greater risk to the world than everything but extreme weather. Polarisation, the housing crisis, cyberattacks, economic downturn, supply-chain disruptions, and even nuclear war ranked beneath misinformation in the WEF risk report. Misinformation was rated more than three times higher in risk level than the erosion of free speech. 

Fears about the democratisation of information have been an enduring theme at WEF conferences in recent years. Having been concerned by the threat of disinformation in the context of 2016 election interference and Covid-19, Davos attendees say they’re now focusing on the risks of AI. 

“The disruptive capabilities of manipulated information are rapidly accelerating, as open access to increasingly sophisticated technologies proliferates and trust in information and institutions deteriorates,” the risk report reads. “Even as the insidious spread of misinformation and disinformation threatens the cohesion of societies, there is a risk that some governments will act too slowly, facing a trade-off between preventing misinformation and protecting free speech, while repressive governments could use enhanced regulatory control to erode human rights.”

is UnHerd’s US correspondent.