We’re still learning about the immense power and potential of the internet. It’s been harnessed to achieve great things: the remarkable speed of widespread communication – in a way that was impossible even as recently as the turn of the millennium – is just one very obvious benefit. The internet can also accelerate and amplify aspects of the most negative forces already present in international society – terrorism; climate change denial; disruption of democracy.
This is the subject of this edition’s cover feature, ‘Trolls, bots and the many dangers of fake news’. The extent to which the internet – and its attendant, newly-coined concepts such as trolls (those who deliberately seek to disrupt discussion) and bots (web robots or software applications that perform automated, repetitive tasks) – is now playing a fundamentally important role in shaping people’s thoughts and actions on everything, including issues that have been among the major global challenges for generations.
As Global Insight went to press, there had been three terrorist attacks (two in London and one in Manchester) in the run up to the UK’s general election on 8 June. This is rightly concentrating minds and will shape the legislative agenda of the UK’s newly-elected government, with the role of social media companies a particular cause for concern. But, as with climate change, this is not an issue that can be tackled by one country or government acting in isolation. As a matter of pressing urgency, a balanced, proportionate and effective global approach is required – and one that fully engages the increasingly powerful global technology and media companies.
The task is far from straightforward. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, rightly counsels caution. He has warned, for example, that efforts to counter what has been dubbed ‘fake news’ could lead to censorship. ‘My concern is that as much as we might be identifying a particular problem, we’re also in a place where, if we start to regulate this kind of information, it can be subject to real abuse,’ he tells Global Insight. The lines need to be drawn carefully, retaining, where possible, the best ideals of the internet and free expression, while making abuse considerably harder.