Digital Wildfires in a Hyperconnected World is one of three risk cases featured in the Global Risks 2013 report, published this week. Lutfey Siddiqi is a Professor at the Risk Management Institute of the National University of Singapore.
One of the most vivid examples of a digital wildfire was the attack on centuries-old Buddhist temples in the southern part of my native Bangladesh in September 2012. This was the first such instance of large-scale religious vandalism in the 40-year history of a Muslim-majority but secular Bangladesh.
Apparently, an offensive image tagged to the Facebook profile of a local Buddhist boy was the spark. It has also emerged that the tagging was a deliberate act of sabotage.
From the perspective of risk management, this incident highlights the potentially incendiary nature of unfiltered, unprocessed and rapidly-socialized Internet content. Other examples abound in various parts of the world with costly consequences for lives, reputation and property. While in the majority of cases the Internet can be self-correcting (as illustrated by the short lifespan of errors on Wikipedia), the combination of democratized uploads, multiplicative networks and the emphasis on brevity over analysis has fattened the downside tail of risk outcomes. This is especially so when the act of misinformation is deliberate.
However, as we grapple with the challenge of containing this risk, the second part of the story from Bangladesh may be instructive.
The initial outburst of violence was not only contained largely to one locality, it was roundly condemned by people expressing themselves in various media (some of which went viral). Far from fanning the flames, rival political parties jostled to establish themselves as “defenders of minorities”. As soon as the information was corrected, pictures of the aftermath posted online, the wildfire was stamped out – demonstrating that the enlightening effect of the Internet can be more powerful than the initial force of destruction.
What also helped is the existence of a vibrant civil society in Bangladesh. This large network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engages in bottom-up, community-based awareness programmes resulting in local opinion-formers who can help to interpret or clarify instances of misinformation. In effect, these organizations and local leaders are offline fire-fighters. To use the parlance of YouTube, they are the “taste-makers” that play a role in risk mitigation.
A recent phenomenon in rural Bangladesh is the social enterprise of “info ladies”, women on bicycles armed with an iPad and Internet connection. For a small fee, they give access and visual connectivity to hitherto information-starved parts of the population. These and other offline ventures that give people access and affirm their sense of dignity enhance their ability to assess the quality of information. The most effective circuit-breaker against a current of misinformation is more information, not less.
While the need to set some boundaries is undeniable (as is the need to ban access to certain material), the best defence against information wildfires is to ensure that the terrain has a sufficient supply of rainfall. The more transparent and information-rich a society, the less the impact of one random tweet. To that extent, the most effective and feasible action of risk-mitigation is to promote Freedom of Information Acts, assist in the widespread adoption of information tools and champion taste-makers who can act as buffers when things get heated.
Image: The eye of a computer user in England REUTERS/Darren Staples
Author: Lutfey Siddiqi is Adjunct Professor at the Risk Management Institute, National University of Singapore and a Managing Director at UBS Investment bank. He is also a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.