Social cohesion is fundamental to the functioning of a healthy society. It refers to the relationships of trust and connectedness that enable a sense of a common good across different communities, underpin the social contract between citizens and government, and allow societies to deal with difference and conflict in non-violent and non-coercive ways. Today, social cohesion faces a set of pernicious challenges and threats through the dynamics of digital misinformation.
While digital information technologies have the potential to benefit individuals and societies in many useful and important ways, their propensity to amplify and accelerate misinformation leads to vulnerabilities on a global scale.
This scale is possible because digital technologies have created conditions in which information:
– spreads further, faster across vast networks of interconnected channels and platforms
– can be micro-targeted to increasingly specific groups and profiles
– can be segmented so effectively that different realities can be presented to different people
These online conditions have real-world impacts and play an important role in the erosion of social cohesion. By exploiting tensions and fears and creating confusion around issues of deep importance for wellbeing and stability, digital misinformation fuels polarization, and makes it difficult to recognize which sources of information should be trusted. Likewise, the more difficult it becomes for people to discern fact from fiction, the more easily doubt is sown – in science, government, social institutions, and in one another.
In turn, this fundamental erosion of trust makes us more susceptible to misinformation itself, affecting not only the choices we make as private citizens, but also the decisions and directions formulated and advanced by governments, multilateral organizations, and other influential institutions.This dangerous feedback loop between digital misinformation and social cohesion exacerbates our vulnerabilities to many threats, and its dynamics have been observed across a range of issues, including electoral integrity, climate change, public health, human rights, and gender- and race-based discrimination.
Digital misinformation dynamics have also played an important role in violent conflicts in Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Cameroon, and Syria; in social tensions in Sri Lanka, DRC, Nigeria, and the United States, among many others; and is often instrumental in the radicalization practices of violent extremist groups around the world.