WEF warns against “digital wildfires”

 ·9 Jan 2013

A new report conducted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) warns against the unforeseen consequences of new life science technologies, including social media.

The research paper warns that hyperconnectivity could enable “digital wildfires” to wreak havoc in the real world.

The global body says the Internet could be the source of a wave of panic, with severe geopolitical consequences. It said further that social media allows information to spread around the world at breakneck speed in an open system where norms and rules are starting to emerge, but have not yet been defined.

“The global risk of massive digital misinformation sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyber attacks and the failure of global governance,” the WEF said in a report.

The group’s Global Risks 2013 report was developed from an annual survey of over 1,000 experts from industry, government, academia and civil society who were asked to review a landscape of 50 global risks.

The WEF points out that the Internet remains an uncharted, fast-evolving territory where “current generations are able to communicate and share information instantaneously and at a scale larger than ever before.”

“While the benefits of this are obvious and well documented, the hyperconnected world also has the potential for the rapid viral spread of information that is either intentionally or unintentionally misleading or provocative, with serious consequences,” the report said.

The document stresses that it is conceivable that a false rumour spreading virally through social networks could have a devastating impact before being effectively corrected.

“It is just as conceivable that the offending content’s original author might not even be aware of its misuse or misrepresentation by others on the Internet, or that it was triggered by an error in translation from one language to another,” the report said.

Social media map

Social media map

Social media growth

The paper further highlights the rapid growth of Facebook, which has reached more than one billion active users in less than a decade of existence – while Twitter has attracted over 500 million active users in seven years. Sina-Weibo, China’s dominant micro-blogging platform, passed 400 million active accounts in summer 2012.

The WEF also points out that every minute, 48 hours’ worth of content is uploaded to YouTube. “The world of social media is multicultural and young,” the WEF noted.

Analysis of Twitter messages and networks has successfully predicted election results, movie box office success and consumer reactions to specific brands, among other things, the WEF said.

“However, some individuals and organizations have suffered losses due to the capacity for information to spread virally and globally through social media,” the WEF said.

The forum believes that what unites individucals and organizations is that hyperconnectivity amplified their impacts to a degree that would have been unthinkable in a pre-Internet age.

The WEF stresses that digital wildfires are most dangerous in situations of high tension, when false information or inaccurately presented imagery can cause damage before it is possible to propagate accurate information.

The other dangerous situation is when information circulates within a bubble of likeminded people who may be resistant to attempts to correct it, it adds.

“Cases in which false information feeds into an existing worldview, making it harder to dislodge, are far from unimaginable. This may be more of a problem with social networks where information is less publicly visible, for example, through friend networks on Facebook or more “opaque” social networks such as e-mail or text messaging,” the WEF said.

Digital wildfires

Digital wildfires

Digital wildfire dangers

While it is certainly possible for a digital wildfire to start accidentally, it is also possible for misinformation to be deliberately propagated by those who stand to reap some kind of benefit.

And according to the WEF, more worrying for businesses may be misinformation that circulates at a time when markets are already anticipating an important announcement.

On 18 October 2012, NASDAQ halted trading on Google shares as a leaked earnings report (coupled with weak results it entailed) triggered a US$ 22 billion plunge in Google’s market capitalization.

“In this case, the information was from a credible source, but it demonstrates impacts that could also be achieved by unfortunately timed misinformation or rumours,” the report said.

“It is not always easy to trace the source of a digital wildfire. It would be possible for careful cyber attackers to cover their tracks, raising the possibility of an organisation or country being falsely blamed for propagating inaccurate or provocative information.”

“Depending on existing tensions, the consequences of the false attribution could be exponentially worse than if no attribution had been made,” the WEF said.


The WEF argues that legal restrictions on online anonymity and freedom of speech are a possible route to preventing such online harms, but this may also have undesirable consequences.

“Ultimately, generators and consumers of social media will need to evolve an ethos of responsibility and healthy scepticism,” the report said.

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