Hindsight is 2020

Hindsight is 2020

  • December 22, 2020

The year 2020 has marked many firsts, good and bad.

January 2020 marked the beginning of the second year of GDI. Back then, a mere 12 months ago, we knew this year would focus heavily on high-risk disinformation content regarding the US election. What we could not have known is that the other major use of our AI technology would be the tracking of disinformation regarding a novel coronavirus and the global roll-out of a vaccination programme to remedy it. 

While the world will be counting the social, emotional and economic costs of the pandemic for years to come, there are some positives on it’s balance sheet too. One of these is the widespread acceptance that online disinformation is not just “people telling lies on the internet” as we heard often in GDI’s first year. Now there is widespread industry and societal acceptance that disinformation is a global crisis with very real harms. The bunk cures, vaccine conspiracies and violent anti lockdown protests have made the dangers abundantly clear. Equally clear has become the need for a “whole of society” solution to this most complex and global of challenges.

At GDI we have been continually improving our ability to detect disinformation about the virus, and a range of other topics from pseudoscience to hate speech to voter fraud conspiracy theories. And we are now providing this capability to advertising technology companies. In October we announced our first deal with MediaMath, a demand-side platform. In 2021, we will have more exciting partnerships to share. Our intelligence work has garnered us our first front page of The New York Times. And our human review methodology of the most popular news sites has been rolled out to nine countries. These products make it easier for advertisers to ensure their brands’ ads are not funding harmful content and instead support the high quality journalism which we direly need. 

Ahead of the US election we brought our human and artificial intelligence processes together to publish an election disinformation primer outlining the main disinformation narratives, the websites trafficking in these narratives, as well as the sites providing the lowest risk of disinformation. In December, we were delighted to see this publication cited by several US senators in an open letter to Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai, in relation to Google ad services on disinformation content.

We have also seen an increasing recognition by the advertising industry that a comprehensive and coordinated solution is needed to defund disinformation. 

In summer, the #StopHateForProfit movement led a Facebook boycott with over 900 major advertisers backing it. By autumn, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) announced an ad industry-wide initiative to promote a common set of standards for “brand safe” content. Around the same time, the 4As—which includes some of the largest advertising companies globally—published an excellent white paper with clear, actionable recommendations for advertisers to take on disinformation. These advances connected with some positive policy advances to defund disinformation by platforms, including Google’s announcement to not serve ads on all coronavirus disinformation. 

But more is needed collectively to defund disinformation. 

Despite policy changes and these initiatives, disinformation continues to have a funding lifeline. 

For example, based on GDI weekly tracking of ad-funded disinformation, Google and other companies like Xandr and Amazon continue to serve ads to COVID-19 conspiracy content in violation of their own policies. Also these same platforms have not put in place policies on related disinformation topics, such as climate change denial and non-covid vaccination disinformation. 

Several governments, and now the EU with its Digital Services Act, have fired the starting gun in efforts to find a balance between the enormous benefits the open internet affords and the unacceptable harms we are currently experiencing. GDI looks forward to providing the evidence-base to support these government-led efforts to tackle ad-funded disinformation. 

Looking back at 2020, we would never have thought that these policy actions would be as advanced as they are. It is thanks to the work of a range of organisations that have pushed the disinformation policy agenda and collective consciousness, including Avaaz, CCDH, the EU DisinfoLab, ISD, the Oxford Internet Institute, and SumofUS, among many others. 

As we say goodbye (and good riddance) to 2020, all that remains is for me and the rest of the GDI team to say a heartfelt thank you to the funders and supporters of GDI, and to wish everyone a more peaceful 2021.

Clare Melford, Co-founder and Executive Director

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