Fake news on social media has been around for a long time, but it came to the fore in the wake of the 2016 US presidential elections. The alleged interference by Russia in driving social media toward the candidature of Donald Trump showed how so-called ‘news’ on Facebook and other social media platforms can be dangerously twisted to malign candidates and influence voters. With the 2020 elections just weeks away, the ugly specter of digital fake news figured prominently in a recent conference held by EPFL’s Center for Digital Trust (C4DT).

Experts on cyber security, fake news, and democracy called for an awakening among citizens and governments so that urgent heed is paid to this growing menace, which threatens the very essence of democracy. Dr. ​Rebekah Overdorf, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at EPFL’s Distributed Information Systems Laboratory, raised concerns about the manipulation of social media by vested interests. However, she emphasized that the problem is not US- or West-centric; rather, it is a global phenomenon. This is proven by her ongoing research on cyber disinformation and election interference in Kyrgyzstan, sometimes referred to as ‘the island of democracy.’ Following elections on October 4, there was a public outcry against widespread manipulation and voter suppression, which ultimately forced the prime minister to step down. Collaborating with local journalists, students and activists, Overdorf identified three methods of information manipulation: creating noise through fake social media accounts to drown out opposition, spreading disinformation through fake news to destroy trust, and performing malicious personal attacks.

Karl Aberer, faculty member of EcoCloud and Full Professor at the Distributed Information Systems Laboratory, went a step further by addressing the root of the problem: insufficient quality information and a surfeit of free, but often manipulated, news on social media. Digital literacy is the need of the hour, but time may be running out. Drawing a parallel with climate change, Professor Aberer said that we might soon be reaching a “point of no return” when democracies might be beyond redemption.

These alarming thoughts were echoed by Steve El-Sharawy, head of Insights at EzyInsights. He said that global manipulation is already beyond control. Although Facebook has deleted billions of fake accounts, it could only be the proverbial tip of the iceberg with many fake accounts still propagating misinformation on social media.

The conference, “Manipulating elections in cyberspace: Are democracies in danger?” was a joint C4DT – CyberPeace Institute – CTEI event that can be viewed at https://youtu.be/PVbwfO-qri4%20Target