Artificial intelligence
Taking a longer-term view spanning a decade, the experts polled by the WEF have identified extreme weather events and climate change as the foremost pressing risks. Wikimedia Commons

The World Economic Forum (WEF) sounded a resounding alarm regarding the perilous impact of artificial intelligence-driven misinformation and disinformation on the impending crucial elections, highlighting its potential to significantly disrupt the global economy.

In a starkly pessimistic evaluation, the WEF, ahead of its annual congregation in Davos, expressed profound apprehension over the looming spectre of political turmoil fuelled by the dissemination of false information. This, the forum asserted, could pave the way for civil unrest, labour strikes and governmental crackdowns on dissent.

The WEF's annual risks report, based on insights from 1,400 experts, unveiled a chilling reality: 30 per cent of respondents foresaw a high probability of a global catastrophe within the next two years, with an even more staggering revelation that two-thirds feared the onset of a calamitous event within the coming decade.

Within this disconcerting forecast, the WEF stressed the persistent menace of the cost of living crisis and the interwoven dangers posed by disinformation and polarised societies, defining the overarching landscape for 2024.

Elections slated for that year in nations representing a substantial 60 per cent of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), such as the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union and India prompted the WEF to highlight the critical nexus between fabricated information and societal upheaval, projecting it to take centre stage during those campaigns.

The delineation between misinformation, erroneous or inaccurate information and disinformation, purposeful dissemination of false content often used for propaganda or instigating fear and suspicion, became crucial in comprehending the gravity of the threat at hand.

Taking a longer-term view spanning a decade, the experts polled by the WEF identified extreme weather events and climate change as the foremost pressing risks. The WEF, situated in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, stressed upon the urgent need to tackle an increasingly unstable global order characterised by polarising narratives, insecurity and the escalating impacts of extreme weather, economic uncertainty, and the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation.

Saadia Zahidi, a managing director of the WEF, highlighted the imperative for global leaders to address not only immediate crises but also to lay the groundwork for a more resilient, sustainable and inclusive future. The report, a collaborative effort involving Zurich Insurance and Marsh McLennan, categorised risks over both a two-year and ten-year horizon, shedding light on the most imminent threats and those looming on the horizon.

In the short term, the report pinpointed the five most prominent risks as misinformation and disinformation, extreme weather events, societal polarisation, cyber insecurity and interstate armed conflict.

Carolina Klint, chief commercial officer in Europe for Marsh McLennan, underscored the disruptive impact of artificial intelligence advancements on organisational risk outlooks, particularly in grappling with threats stemming from misinformation, disintermediation and strategic miscalculations.

Klint accentuated the necessity for unwavering focus to fortify resilience at organizational, national and international levels, stressing the major role of collaboration between the public and private sectors to navigate this swiftly evolving risk landscape.

AI's exponential growth magnified the threat posed by the widespread dissemination of disinformation and misinformation, potentially casting doubt on the legitimacy of elected governments. Klint forewarned that voters could become targets for hostile foreign powers and domestic entities, heightening the vulnerability of democratic processes.

Looking further into the future, the report identified the top five long-term risks as extreme weather events, critical changes to earth systems, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, natural resource scarcities and the sustained menace of misinformation and disinformation.

While two-thirds of respondents expressed concerns about extreme weather events in 2024, disparities existed in the urgency attributed to these risks. Private sector respondents anticipated a more extended timeline for environmental risks to materialise compared to civil society or government, indicating an escalating risk of surpassing a point of irreversible damage.

Zahidi struck a balance by noting that while the outlook appeared bleak, it had not unequivocally predicted the future. She asserted that the future's trajectory lay firmly within human control, stressing agency and the potential for proactive intervention to shape a more favourable outcome.