As we look at 2021 in the rearview mirror, two trends stand out. The first — attacks on democracy as the best form of governance humans have yet invented — accelerated around the world. For the last 70 years liberal democracy was mostly undisputed as the best way to deliver social and economic development to large numbers of people.
But the last few years have seen that consensus increasingly attacked. State actors have been progressively more successful in their information operations seeking to undermine faith in democracy. Their targets are their own citizens, but also those of other parts of the world. And 2021 started with a great democracy attacking itself with the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.
This year looks set to accelerate and amplify those attacks on democracy. Russia’s physical and information operations along its border with Ukraine are coming at the same time as China is running more sophisticated information operations against its neighbouring countries and among the Chinese diaspora. If these information operations move into physical conflict, fans of the Rules Based International Order will be heavily reliant on a strong U.S. response in Asia and Europe simultaneously. But the U.S. looks set to be mired in an information operation of its own making around the midterms in November. 2022 is shaping up to be a grim year.
The second trend that defined 2021, to us at GDI at least, was the combining of disparate disinformation narratives. The COP26 conference that took place in Glasgow provided plenty of fodder for disinformation peddlers, but we observed that climate change denialism was increasingly hitched to other narratives – election disinformation, racial justice etc. The increasing polarisation of some societies makes this “grab bag” of narrative strategies very effective as a rallying cry for the faithful. It also makes societies more receptive to the uber narrative of “democracy isn’t working.” 2022 will see this narrative being expounded by state actors and domestic groups, or more generally by anyone who thinks they stand to gain from alternatives to democracy.
Fighting back against this narrative is the work of an increasingly sophisticated ecosystem of organisations of which GDI is proud to be a part.
Over the last 12 months GDI has had some real successes in expanding the number of news sites we assess for disinformation risk. We’ve also had success in getting those risk ratings into the hands of the ad tech community to enable advertisers to choose which sites their advertising supports. We know that many of the websites that we have seen promulgating some of the most toxic narratives – for example, COVID and anti-vax disinformation, voter fraud conspiracies, and climate change denial – have lost a significant amount of their advertising revenue over the last year as a result of the work of GDI and others in this space.
We now assess over 500,000 news sites in multiple languages with our machine learning classifiers, and we have done detailed reviews of the largest sites in 18 countries to date, with many more planned for 2022. We are now providing this data to over a dozen major ad tech and platform partners who all use the data to ensure advertisers’ money ends up being spent on high quality journalism and not disinformation.
Beyond advertising, there are many other ways that people seek to generate revenue from polarising society. Our study, Bankrolling Bigotry, formed the basis of testimony given by one of our co-founders, Dr. Danny Rogers to the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services. To date this report has led to at least 17 companies taking action to remove services from the hate groups we identified. We followed this up with a study of German hate groups, with similar results.
GDI’s work has been used by policymakers on the other side of the Atlantic too, with our co-Founder, Clare Melford giving evidence to the EU joint INGA and IMCO committee on Foreign Interference.
Showcasing the power of the coalition of organisations fighting back against the disinformation was a documentary aired on France TV which brought together the work of many organisations, including GDI. This work led to one particularly pernicious purveyor of disinformation being blocked by Google’s advertising services, denying it a crucial funding source.
Other notable successes for GDI’s work in 2021 include our collaboration with The New York Times resulted in several high profile pieces including an investigation into the network strategies of known disinformation sites and analysis on the impact of Trump’s ban from social media.
Looking ahead to 2022, GDI will continue to expand the number of sites rated using its unique combination of human and artificial intelligence, and we will continue to work with our partners to put those ratings to work directing advertisers money away from polarising, divisive content and towards quality journalism. We will also be applying our methodology to video and other format news content in the coming year. As well as continuing to provide data to policy makers and research partners.
The explosion of online disinformation has made it easy for those who seek to erode democratic norms.
Imperfect it may be, but renewing our democracies offers our best chance of achieving escape velocity from the clutches of our current pandemic. And energetic democracies are going to be vital to tackling the other global challenge of our age, climate change.
We could not do the work we do without the support of our funders, to whom we are eternally grateful. And we would not have the impact we have had without our invaluable partners, so a heartfelt thank you to you as well. And to our GDI team and the broader GDI family, none of it would happen without you all.
—Clare Melford and Danny Rogers, Global Disinformation Index Co-Founders