AI-driven disinformation tops WEF’s global risk list as elections loom

Survey reveals growing pessimism about longer-term risk outlook

AI-driven misinformation and disinformation has shot straight in as the number one short-term risk in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) latest Global Risks Report, and now features alongside extreme weather, societal polarisation, and cyber risk as a leading near-term concern.

Environmental risks, such as extreme weather and critical change to Earth systems, dominate the longer-term risk outlook, but misinformation and disinformation is the leading risk outside of these issues here too.

The WEF’s Global Risks Report 2024, based on a survey of 1,400 global risks experts, policy makers and industry leaders in September last year, also reveals a pessimistic outlook for the world over the next two years that only worsens when looking further ahead.

And the WEF warns that cooperation on urgent global issues could be in short supply, so it calls for new approaches and solutions from all the stakeholders to address some of the big risks.

Misinformation and disinformation appeared for the first time ever in the WEF’s annual risk survey and, with many elections set to take place over the next 24 months, jumped straight to the number one spot over a two-year horizon. It was voted the second-most-likely risk to cause a global crisis in 2024 and was seen as the fifth-biggest risk over the next ten years.

The 2024 WEF report, produced with Zurich Insurance and Marsh McLennan, reveals a real mix of leading risks from the five economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological categories over the two-year horizon. Extreme weather events came second, societal polarisation third, cyber insecurity fourth and interstate armed conflict fifth.

Extreme weather came top in the outlook for 2024, followed by AI misinformation and disinformation, then societal or political polarisation, the cost-of-living crisis and cyberattacks.

Figure B Current risk landscape

Over the ten-year horizon, Saadia Zahidi, managing director of the WEF, told media that climate risks are still “very much the number one concern”. Extreme weather is seen as the biggest threat, followed by critical change to Earth systems, another new risk option in the survey. Next comes biodiversity loss, natural resource shortage, and then misinformation and disinformation completing the top five.

Figure C Global risks ranked by severity over the short and long term

Zahidi also said that participants in the WEF survey entered 2024 with a “fairly pessimistic” global outlook for the next two years that gets “progressively worse” over the longer term, ten-year timeframe. While 30% of experts think there is an elevated chance of global catastrophes in the next two years, this rises to nearly two-thirds over the next ten years. Zahidi said this is markedly different from last year when the longer-term outlook was more optimistic.

The WEF said concerns over a persistent cost-of-living crisis, alongside the intertwined risks of AI-driven misinformation and societal polarisation, “dominated” the short-term risk outlook.

“The nexus between falsified information and societal unrest will take centre stage amid elections in several major economies that are set to take place in the next two years. Interstate armed conflict is a top five concern over the next two years. With several live conflicts under way, underlying geopolitical tensions and corroding societal resilience risk are creating conflict contagion,” it warned.

Carolina Klint, chief commercial officer in Europe at Marsh McLennan, said the potential impact of this misinformation on worldwide elections is “significant” and could lead to elected governments’ legitimacy being called into question. “This in turn could threaten democratic processes, causing further social polarisation, riots, strikes or even intrastate violence,” she said.

The WEF’s Zahidi agreed that the threat of misinformation needs to be taken seriously given that large parts of the world will be voting in elections over the next couple of years.

“The speed with which some of that synthetic content can be created and that it is not tagged or watermarked in many parts of the world, combined with the fact that most people are not educated at present to the risks of some of this synthetically generated misinformation, is a very potent mix. When you throw on top of that a situation where there are already a lot of economic grievances and other things, you are looking at a very difficult combination going into elections,” she said.

Klint said that given the sudden accessibility of user-friendly interfaces like ChatGPT, larger scale AI models and synthetic content to manipulate public opinion, it is “no wonder” that misinformation and disinformation is ranked as the top short-term risk in the latest WEF survey.

She said AI offers businesses many fantastic opportunities but stressed that companies have to also consider the societal, economic and security implications of using the technology.

“Artificial intelligence breakthroughs will radically disrupt the risk outlook for organisations, with many struggling to react to threats arising from misinformation, disintermediation and strategic miscalculation,” she said.

Adding: “The success of this will depend on regular testing, updating, verification and lots of upskilling and training. It is the only way we can prevent strategic and tactical miscalculations by AI that could lead to catastrophic errors, reputational harm or even significant liabilities.”

The WEF’s Global Risks Report 2024 report also warns that the coming years will be marked by persistent economic uncertainty and growing economic and technological divides.

“Lack of economic opportunity is ranked sixth in the next two years. Over the longer term, barriers to economic mobility could build, locking out large segments of the population from economic opportunities. Conflict-prone or climate-vulnerable countries may increasingly be isolated from investment, technologies and related job creation. In the absence of pathways to safe and secure livelihoods, individuals may be more prone to crime, militarisation or radicalisation,” it says.

The report calls on leaders to rethink action to address global risks. It recommends focusing global cooperation on rapidly building guardrails for the most disruptive emerging risks, such as agreements addressing the integration of AI in conflict decision making.

However, the report also explores other types of action that aren’t dependent on cross-border cooperation. This could include shoring up individual and state resilience through digital literacy campaigns on misinformation and disinformation, or fostering greater research and development on climate modelling and technologies, with the potential to speed up the energy transition, it says.

John Scott, head of sustainability risk at Zurich Insurance, said collective and coordinated cross-border actions can play their part in helping the world rise to the many challenges it faces, but added that localised strategies are critical to reduce the impact of global risks.

“While there are many different approaches to managing risk, there is no one silver bullet. In fact, what we need to do is pull together all these different approaches, whether they are local strategies, collaboration, international cooperation or individual and collective action,” said Scott.

“But if we do all of that, we can move the needle. The good news is that within this fractured and fast-moving risk landscape we see, there is an opportunity to address these risks for all of us. However, the fact is we are all going to have to take these actions,” he added.

And Zahidi was equally keen to stress that positive action is more than possible, despite the pessimistic picture painted by the WEF report.

“This [report] has a very gloomy outlook but by no means is it a hard, fast set prediction of the future. The future is very much in our hands. Yes, there are structural shifts underway, but most of these things are very much in the hands of decision makers across different stakeholders. And that is where the effort needs to be,” she said, ahead of the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos next week.

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