Artificial intelligence will turbocharge the spread of disinformation – and development organisations need to respond


This article was first published on the From Poverty to Power blog. An event was held to discuss the report on 11th June - the full recording can be seen here.

Lies spread six times faster than truth online. That’s a pretty alarming figure, but perhaps not as concerning as the amount of time it has taken the international development community to act in response to the world’s growing information crisis.

Misleading information, rumours, and lies – which caused a profound human toll during the global pandemic – look set to be turbocharged by artificial intelligence. At the same time, the collapse of traditional advertising markets has left independent media vulnerable to capture and suppression by illiberal political interests.

Authoritarians seeking to tighten their hold on power are finding new ways to use the legal system to silence and punish critics. The internet and other digital communication tools, once heralded as “liberation technologies”, have been weaponised by dictators against journalists and civil society activists within and beyond their borders, including through the use of commercial spyware. In the 42 countries that the V-Dem Institute considers to be increasingly autocratic, declines in freedom of expression and the press have led to erosion of democracy.

Minimal investment in the face of evolving threats

Yet three recent studies show how little development assistance is targeted at media and the information environment: just 0.5 percent of overall development assistance, about US$1.5 billion in 2022, according to a recent mapping by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). Even this figure is an overstatement, however, as it includes major investments in infrastructure, which are seldom provided with any attention to supporting democratic outcomes. Support for the development of the news media sector – so important for functioning democracies and good governance  – constitutes only 0.3 percent of official aid, according to the Center for International Media Assistance.  

‘Even modest investments inoculated Ukraine against one of the most aggressive disinformation campaigns of our time.’

Private philanthropy has done better. According to the Trust, Accountability, and Inclusion Collaborative, in 2017-2021 US-based philanthropists spent 2.7 percent of their total investment on promoting healthy information ecosystems worldwide (mostly in the US), though only a fraction of that goes to aid-recipient countries ($1.3 billion out of $21.3 billion). Much more can and needs to be done globally to keep pace with the evolving nature of information threats to democracy and development.

The local actors still missing out

Building healthy information ecosystems means supporting local media and civil society organisations to do their jobs effectively. Yet where international assistance should be at its best – making sure funding reaches local actors on the frontlines – it has disappointed. Of the meagre amounts of official aid that flow to the media sector and the information environment, only up to eight percent goes to local organisations, according to the OECD study: $740 million out of $11.7 billion spent by donors during 2016-2022. By contrast, in the same period, $3.27 billion has gone to international public broadcasters, in particular the BBC World Service and Deutsche Welle, which we do not consider development assistance and we have excluded from our analysis (see graph below). Most philanthropic funding is also channelled through Northern intermediaries, mainly based in the United States. Those with the most at stake are being left on the sidelines – again.

Total ODA for media and the information environment 2002-2022

Principles that can protect media integrity

However, there are reasons to hope that we might at a turning point. The OECD has elevated this issue as a priority for international assistance, recently adopting a set of six principles that should guide donor investment in the media sector and information ecosystems, “to preserve, protect, and promote public interest media and information integrity”:

  1. Ensure that assistance does no harm to public interest media;
  2. Increase financial and other forms of support;
  3. Take a whole-of-system perspective;
  4. Strengthen local leadership and ownership;
  5. Improve coordination of support; and
  6. Invest in knowledge, research, and learning.

The emphasis on a “whole-of-system perspective” reflects the growing awareness of the value of taking an ecosystems approach – considering all the interconnected components to make sure that information is created, shared, and used responsibly. Momentum seems also to be surging at the political level with greater attention to these issues from diplomatic initiatives such as the Media Freedom Coalition and Summit for Democracy. As a sign of growing political will, countries have also established new global funds, such as the International Fund for Public Interest Media and the Global Media Defence Fund.

Barriers to improving the amount and quality of funding are manifold; this is a politically sensitive area, technically complex and competing with other global priorities. But not only are media and access to information essential for open societies, accurate information also pays massive dividends for government accountability, societal trust, and sustainable development, as confirmed in a recent review of the evidence by UNESCO with assistance from Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz.

While investments in information integrity have been modest, they have been impactful. Foreign donors provided just $150 million to support the development of Ukraine’s media sector between 2010 and 2019; yet even those modest investments inoculated the country against one of the most aggressive disinformation campaigns of our time. It is time to scale up this assistance for the rest of the world. The new OECD principles should be a turning point and the start of something better.