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Social media (including messaging platforms) are becoming more and more relevant for contemporary societies: they constitute the main sources of information for an increasing number of citizens. They have also become vital communication tools for governments, diplomatic personnel, international organisations (IOs) and all actors, formal and informal, taking part in the international system.

Social media can be used by states as tools to project power, by spreading manipulated information or fake news or to libel individuals or institutions working in crucial sectors. Both authoritarian and democratic leaders tend to deploy them quite often in order to reach a wide range of political goals: inter alia, to delegitimise disruptive journalists and media, to discredit political opponents or leaders of foreign states, to orient electoral choices in other states or even to contribute to the justification of especially grave decisions, such as foreign interventions motivated by alleged violations of international law by third countries’ governments. In particular, the use of disinformation by state and non-state actors to interfere in domestic affairs of other countries (e.g., before and/or during political elections or referenda) is endangering not only the very concept of sovereignty, but also the independence and security of states and the functioning of democratic processes, with serious implications for relations among states and multilateralism as a consequence. Whereas cases of weaponization of disinformation regard especially autocratic regimes, democracies are not exempted, as the attempts by some American Alt-Right groups to influence the 2017 French President elections prove.

The frequent use of disinformation challenges the reciprocal trust among actors who participate in the multilateral governance of the international system and it makes enduring and effective cooperation on global challenges much more difficult to achieve.

Effective communication is key to multilateral governance, and it is especially useful to envisage and implement actions which require the constructive cooperation of governments and third parties, involving not only governments but also civil society actors – such as in the case of actions needed to realise the goals defined in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the actions defined in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, and the measures to contrast the Covid-19 pandemic (in primis realising far-reaching vaccination campaigns and guaranteeing people’s safe mobility). As underlined by Mark Zuckerberg, social media are a sort of a “town square”: if you want to be part of the conversation, you have no choice but to be there; otherwise, you are a digital outcast. However, the use of social media can cause a polarisation of opinions and sectarianism and harbour conflictual relationships among individuals, groups, political parties, and states. Moreover, since our activities happen mostly in-between the digital and the physical worlds, as effectively expressed by Luciano Floridi’s well-known concept of “onlife”, spill-over effects are more and more frequent and conflicts can move offline from social media and have an impact on violent conflicts. Therefore, the spread of malicious fake news and disinformation can be a tool of hybrid war, bringing about long-lasting negative implications for multilateralism.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how the spread of disinformation on sensitive issues – a phenomenon known as “infodemic”, conceptualised by the WHO in 2020 – can powerfully influence people’s behaviour and affect the impact of countermeasures deployed by governments. Disinformation can even speed up the epidemic by influencing and fragmenting the social response to the disease; moreover, people might find it difficult to discern which information sources are trustworthy, especially if the scientific community does not reach a unanimous position and scientists provide different explanations and solutions for a given problem. Also, while the production of accurate and detailed information can be expensive and time-consuming, fake news can cheaply and quickly fill the gap and satisfy the public’s demand for information, at least for a broad target. The “infodemic” highlights the need for evidence-based policymaking with a high quality scientific advisory system. Without knowledge, research, reliable and accessible data, and effective and well-timed coordination among the key actors responsible for managing health emergency, leaders run the risk of enacting very fragmented and even controversial political responses, by relying on a rooted policy style that is overly influenced by the rules and structures of civil service and the political systems they operate in. In order to face this kind of threats, multilateral cooperation is paramount, and it constitutes a precious resource to bypass and fix the rigidity and inefficiency of national systems. As a matter of fact, achieving multilateral cooperation requires smooth, open and continuous communication. To obtain that, governments and international organisations need to tackle disinformation, detecting and contrasting the attempts at hampering multilateralism, focusing on those conducted via social media, which are especially pervasive and produce long-lasting effects.

The challenges mentioned above show the urgency of dealing with regulating social media, assigning the responsibility of content control to social media companies or to ad hoc nominated expert panels, engaging states and regional organisations such as the EU in the creation of an international regulation, policing with algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI), and investing in specific digital education programmes. Moreover, permanent roundtable discussions with social media corporations ought to be established, in order to contribute to the adoption of standardised rules concerning the detection and contrast to fake news and disinformation for all social media platforms. It would also help to construct a collaborative relationship with social media for the diffusion of agreed and reliable information concerning critical issues, such as transnational health emergencies, and propose viable measures for sanctioning the creators and diffusers of harmful fake news.

Finally, in order to contribute to the fight against malicious disinformation, formal and informal institutions working on international multilateral governance need to improve their communication strategies, working towards increasing the clarity and accuracy of the information they produce, improving their reputation as authoritative sources of information and reducing the public’s exposure to rumours on fundamental issues, which tend to circulate in order to fill information voids, especially amidst a crisis.

This article summarizes a policy brief of the authors that was published by T20 (A think tank of the G20). The full policy brief is available here.

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Serena Giusti is Head of the Programme on Eastern Europe and Russia at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies (Pisa) and Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Institute for International Studies (ISPI). She sits on the Advisory board of Women in International Security (WIIS) – Italy. She has extensively published on EU external relations, Russian foreign policy, international security.

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Elisa Piras is Post-doctoral Fellow in Political Philosophy at DIRPOLIS Institute, Sant’Anna School for Advanced Studies (Pisa), where she is Didactic Coordinator of the Master in Human Rights and Conflict Management. Her research interests focus on contemporary political liberalism and its international implications, theories of public opinion, history of political thought, gender and security.

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