Information resilience is a priority for the future.
We now know what happens when fake news infests a country: the January 6th storming of the US Capitol, and in the UK, the multiple anti-vaxxer assaults on NHS vaccination sites. If disinformation and misinformation are allowed to proliferate, our societies will become ungovernable.
Preventing hostile states and others from spreading falsehoods is virtually impossible. But there is an answer: fight back. I propose that the government create a psychological defence agency. This might sound far-fetched, but Sweden created just such an agency earlier this year. Like the Swedish pioneer, the UK agency would detect foreign disinformation campaigns being directed against the country and skilfully counteract them.
It would also fund accessible informational literacy courses, delivered, for example, by our wonderful public libraries. These could be designed by librarians and digital experts, run flexibly (at weekends, evenings etc) and look to build on the best approaches already demonstrating results, like pre-bunking, which involves showing people examples of how misinformation works so they are better equipped to spot it in the future.
We need to treat disinformation as a serious existential threat.
The goal is to teach citizens how to verify and evaluate information—recognising that virtually no adult is trained in it, and that it’s a skill already vital for day-to-day life and set to be more so. To underline its importance, the training could conclude with an exam—the information equivalent of a driver’s licence and perhaps just as important for helping citizens navigate their daily lives. It would be equally useful for employers and the economy at large—which organisation today can afford to hire employees who don’t know how to verify information?
And which democracy can survive where people cannot agree what constitutes a fact?
We need to treat disinformation as a serious existential threat. In World War II, psychological defence was a vital part of Britain’s resilience: the entire population was called on to be careful with what information they shared, and judicious in what information they trusted. Today the same advice holds true.