World Economic Forum Flags ‘Digital Wildfires’ As Risk to Global Stability

By Cameron Scott 

Tom Wang /

Global political and economic experts believe that false information spread on social networks could cause political and economic unrest, according to the 2013 Global Risks Report issued by the World Economic Forum.

“A false rumor spreading virally through social networks could have a devastating impact before being effectively corrected,” the report concludes, citing surveys of 1,000 experts around the world.

The report points out that social networks, by sorting people into social affinity groups, make it more difficult for relevant parties to correct misinformation. Those within a social group are less likely to believe information that comes from outside that group, the report notes.

It sites several recent examples of “digital wildfires” with significant effects. The YouTube video “Innocence of Muslims,” contributed, whether directly or indirectly, to violent anti-American protests around the world. The American ambassador to Libya was killed in one related incident.

The BBC’s report an allegation that a senior politician had been involved in child abuse, led to an outing on Twitter, which proved to be incorrect. The politician’s name was tweeted about 10,000 times before the mistake was widely recognized. The BBC has settled with the politician for £185,000.

Since the survey was concluded in 2012, Ryan Lanza, the brother of the Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, was also wrongly identified as the shooter thanks to a Facebook photo.

The report also notes the value of global free speech on the Internet and prompts thought leaders to come up with ways to minimize the risk of false rumors.