IN OCTOBER 2021, Phil Howard, an internet researcher at the University of Oxford, was alerted to a preposterous story on social media. It alleged that the covid-19 pandemic was started by a shipment of Maine lobsters that arrived in Wuhan, China, days before the first outbreak. He and his colleagues spent months trying to track down the source and didn’t get to the bottom of it – except that it probably originated in China, possibly through the state-owned TV channel CGTN.
“I felt my career had hit a new low,” says Howard. “What was so ridiculous was the enormous effort that we needed to expose a ridiculous attempt to manipulate public opinion. I realised that I didn’t want to do that work myself, so I decided to try and come up with an initiative that would do something about the problem in a systematic way.”
Today, Howard is chair of a new organisation called the International Panel on the Information Environment, one of many initiatives pushing back against the pollution of the information ecosystem. Regulators, too, are finally lacing up their own boots after spending years sitting on their hands.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, with the recent rise of generative artificial intelligence and its capacity to produce persuasive disinformation on an industrial scale. Many researchers are saying that the next two years are make or break in the information wars, as deep-pocketed bad actors escalate their disinformation campaigns, while the good guys fight back. Which side prevails will determine how the information environment – and everything it shapes, from people’s beliefs about vaccines to the outcomes of elections – …