COVID-19 has accelerated the decline of traditional media organisations, and highlighted the power of social networks to spread disinformation. To understand how the toxic information ecosystems of the future will inflame political divides and undermine democracy, Prue Clarke looks to how a similar array of economic, technological, and social forces played out in post-Ebola Liberia.

2016 was the turning point. Rampant disinformation campaigns that may well have influenced the Brexit vote and the election of US President Donald Trump signalled that new forces were at play in democracy.

In the years since, disinformation campaigns have exploded. In the United States, social networks are driving the spread of the ‘Plandemic’ documentary, which pedals the preposterous notion that the COVID-19 pandemic is a conspiracy between the Chinese government and the World Health Organisation.  In Europe, disinformation has persuaded people to attack 5G towers they believe are spreading the virus. In Australia, a recent survey found one in eight Australians believe the 5G conspiracy.

The dark forces behind these disinformation campaigns have been helped by the demise of public interest journalism. Modern democracies are built on a bedrock of a free and robust media that informs voters and holds leaders to account. But as the business model that underpinned public interest journalism has collapsed, along with public trust in the media, digital platforms and partisan media have taken its place. A new information order is here, and it poses grave dangers to democracy.

The internet and digital platforms, particularly Google and Facebook, have driven the upheaval in information ecosystems. Firstly, tech giants lured away advertising dollars from public interest journalism. Adopting a model of ‘surveillance capitalism’, these platforms then used vast stores of personal data to efficiently target users with ads and content. Secretive algorithms prioritise content that keeps users on platforms. Sensational conspiracy theories, hate speech and outrage have always sold better than truth, and social media thrives on them. Unlike traditional publishers, social media has rarely been held responsible for what is published on its platforms.

COVID-19 has brought things to a head. More than 200 media houses have shut down, been suspended or ceased print publishing in Australia since a lockdown went into effect in March. News deserts – areas that have no coverage by news media – are spreading in democracies across the world. Quality public interest journalism is increasingly hidden behind paywalls, affordable only by an elite. An inclusive national conversation is being replaced by a siloed and anarchic swamp of misinformation, disinformation and partisan anger.

The west African nation of Liberia offers a portent of what’s to come. In 2014 the long-troubled state had reached a high point in economic growth and institution building. Journalists played their role. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected woman leader, fully signed up to the tenets of a free, capitalist democracy. Then a maelstrom of forces, that will sound familiar, swamped the nation. First, an economic slowdown in China sent resource prices plummeting and exposed a national economy overly reliant on extractives. Second, an epidemic broke out (in this case Ebola) bringing the economy to a standstill. Advertising revenue dried up. News media was decimated.

This mapped onto existing online trends in Liberia.  The arrival of broadband in 2012 had not fulfilled high expectations of fuelling development. Instead, closed Facebook groups exploded. Almost every Liberian internet user joined four behemoth closed groups which eventually replaced traditional news providers. Non-journalists and politicians began ‘breaking news’ on Facebook, publishing documents that purported to show fraud and corruption but were often fake. Egregious libel, hate speech, revenge pornography and false news incited violence and replaced public interest news. Liberia’s nascent law enforcement and justice system were powerless. Frustrated, security forces resorted to arresting and threatening people for social media posts.

Facebook group ‘administrators’ emerged as power centres. At first, they bestowed support on the political candidates who paid the most.  But soon administrators became candidates themselves, riding their groups’ support into office and securing the riches that came with power. Liberia’s national conversation was now set by the latest scandal in closed Facebook groups. A population, untrained in spotting social media misinformation, no longer knew what to believe. A once vibrant information ecosystem collapsed.

Donald Trump and UK leader Boris Johnson are liberal democracy’s versions of Facebook group administrators in Liberia. They have used and benefitted from social media disinformation and partisan news to divide society, undermine trust in journalism and energise their base. Democratically elected leaders have followed the same playbook elsewhere, including in Israel, Brazil, the Philippines, Poland, Hungary and Turkey.

The use of disinformation as a political tool is likely to grow. The short-term gains will be too much for many influential actors to resist. The security challenges bearing down on democracies including Australia from pandemics, climate change, automation and geopolitical shifts will be difficult enough to manage with an informed citizenry, united in common goals. It is much more likely that we will face these threats with fiercely, potentially violently, divided societies.

Sadly, political leaders and policymakers around the world have largely failed to recognise  the scale of this assault on democracy. Older democracies in particular have become complacent. Generations now have no understanding of how fragile democracy is and the vital role public information journalism plays in maintaining it.

A resistance is rising. A coalition of government regulators led by Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission is moving to force digital platforms to pay news media for the content that runs on their sites and to enact new regulations that allow greater competition. Philanthropists such as George Soros and Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar have turned their vast fortunes to lobbying for big tech reform — including breaking up digital platforms, regulating fake news,  political propaganda and hate speech, divulging algorithms, and implementing privacy protections.

At the same time philanthropists and some governments, including Australia’s, are funding public interest journalism until a viable business model can be found. One good idea gaining steam is an international fund for public interest media, modelled on the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, to provide funding for public interest journalism in the Global South where there are no business models or philanthropists to support it.  

These are positive developments, but they are a drop in the ocean compared with the financial and social power of the tech giants and those that use them for their own agendas. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the dangerous path ahead.

The biggest test of democracy’s strength in this new information order will come on November 3 when Americans go to the polls to decide whether to re-elect Donald Trump. The president is already hard at work pedalling conspiracy theories to undermine Americans’ trust in democratic institutions. If he loses, many experts believe he will claim the election was rigged and use his base to call the electoral process into question. At that point the world’s first modern democracy will be in real peril. 


Prue Clarke

Senior Executive Officer
Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas