Democracy on a Digital Tightrope | CIDC

April 17, 2024

CIDC shares insights on the digital threats to democracy in a Super Election Year.

In a thought-provoking lecture titled “Democracy Under a Digital Tightrope: Navigating Disinformation in a Super Election Year,” Dr. Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob, Executive Director of the Center for Information, Democracy and Citizenship (CIDC), illuminated the critical challenges that disinformation poses to democracies worldwide, particularly in a year when the majority of the world’s population is heading to the polls.

The event, part of the CIDC’s Global Perspectives Series, began with an illustration of the ease with which fake news can be manufactured and disseminated. A video, created by Nikita Chernevskiy – a 15-year-old high school student from Blagoevgrad, showcased a convincing but entirely fabricated news clip, highlighting the dangers and simplicity of creating ‘deep fake’ videos.

Dr. Jacob drew parallels between Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “A Descent into the Maelstrom” and the current state of media consumption, emphasizing the importance of discerning patterns in the chaos of information that bombards voters. Like the survivor in Poe’s poem, who observes and acts rather than succumb to despair, Dr. Jacob argued that understanding the strategies behind “the vortex of disinformation” is crucial for navigating the digital tightrope faced by modern democracies.

Dr. Jacob also delved into the concept of reflexive control, an old Soviet method of influence that has found new life in today’s digital battlegrounds. This strategy involves shaping a target audience’s perception so decisively that the opponent unknowingly makes decisions that fulfill the initiator’s preferred outcomes. In the case of the 2016 US Presidential Elections, he noted, it involved the malicious use of social media to amplify divisive issues, create fake groups and grassroots movements, and erode trust in democratic institutions.

The lecture underscored the importance of a three-pronged foundation of democracy: constitutionality, rational choice, and participation. Dr. Jacob stressed that the integrity of these pillars is compromised when the electorate is misled or manipulated, posing a grave risk to the functioning of democratic governance.

The lecture also explored the integration of AI with established disinformation tactics, emphasizing the need for collaboration between governments, the private sector, civil society, and universities to effectively combat disinformation and uphold democratic values.

President Margee Ensign who introduced the speaker, observed, “universities create knowledge, they create change. I think it’s a brilliant moment in time that we have to step up with our partners to figure out how best to move forward. She emphasized the need for stronger collaboration between the public sector, the private sector, civil society and universities. “I think we have great opportunities here, so let’s get thinking creatively and innovatively about how we move forward” she said.

The lecture was attended by faculty, students, and staff as well as representatives from civil society including the America for Bulgaria Foundation and the Institute for Public Environment Development. It served as a wake-up call for individuals and organizations to recognize the escalating threat of GenAI-driven disinformation campaigns and the need to defend democracy’s integrity in the face of evolving threats.