Strategy & Leadership

The outlook series: the battle for accurate information and truth

January 05, 2023


The battle for accurate information and truth

January 05, 2023

Jonathan Birdwell

Global Head, Economist Impact’s Policy and Insights team

Jonathan is Interim Global Head of Economist Impact’s Policy and Insights team, and Regional Head of the Policy & Insights team in Europe, Middle East and Africa. Jonathan leads Economist Impact’s team of researchers, economists and subject matter experts to  generate evidence-based insights for governments, international institutions, corporations, foundations, and NGOs around the world.

Jonathan has over fifteen years of experience leading research and advising governments, international organisations and civil society on a wide range of topics. Prior to joining The Economist Group, Jonathan was Deputy Director at ISD Global where he led the Institute’s research, policy, education and cities teams. Jonathan led the set up and build out of ISD’s Digital Analytics Unit, ISD’s Middle East office, as well as the Strong Cities Network, a global network of over 140 cities that focused on capacity building for city-led approaches to tackling extremism and misinformation. On the topic of misinformation and disinformation, Jonathan edited and co-authored reports analysing the scale and nature of misinformation tactics in the context of elections in the US, Sweden, Germany and the European Union.

Prior to ISD, Jonathan was Head of Programme at the London-based think tank Demos where he led work on extremism, populism, social cohesion, political engagement and education. Jonathan’s research and commentary has appeared in The Financial Times, The New York Times, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, The New Statesman, and The Observer. He has appeared on PBS Newshour, BBC Breakfast, BBC Newsnight, BBC Today Programme, and Sky News.

Jonathan holds an MSc with distinction in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and Political Science from Tulane University.


While misinformation and disinformation didn’t dominate the news cycle in 2022 as in previous years, 2023 will likely see its return.

The founding purpose of The Economist newspaper is to “take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”. But today, the ignorance that obstructs our progress is no longer timid. It is wilful, powered by technology and network effects, enabled by business models and lax policy, and manipulated for political and geopolitical purposes.

Between 2016 and 2020, we saw how misinformation; the spreading of false information through ignorance; or disinformation, the spreading of false information deliberately and maliciously, can undermine democracy (throughout the article we refer to both as “misinformation”). State actors, such as Russia and China, extremist groups, conspiracy theorists, paid trolls and politicians have successfully manipulated huge populations. As a measure of their impact, consider this: polls have consistently shown that 70% of Republicans believe that the 2020 US election was stolen.

Although misinformation has not been as pervasive as expected during Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it is likely to heavily feature throughout the 2024 US election. Prepare for a re-run of previous years, with some mainstream politicians taking their foreign-policy cues from Russian propaganda, while using fear and misinformation to drive voter turnout.

In 2020, we saw how tackling misinformation can be a matter of life and death. As covid spread through schools, hospitals and airports, an “infodemic” of misinformation circulated on social media,questioning its seriousness and its origins. It also doubted the efficacy of the vaccines and the motivations of government lockdowns. Some studies found those who consumed news from “traditional media”, rather than solely social media, were more likely to get vaccinated.

Misinformation is frequently used to undermine the free movement of people and goods across borders. On the right, misinformation swirls about migrants, open borders, lost economic opportunities and the elites or “globalists” at the top of the economic system. Left-wing activists are also prolific spreaders of misinformation around the effects of international trade and globalisation. As globalisation morphs and changes shape, driven by geopolitical competition particularly among the US and China, we should brace ourselves for a ramping up of information warfare. State actors will expand their tactics and become increasingly proactive trying to sow disruption in domestic populations or attack corporate competitors. Businesses could get caught up in the crossfire. Some may even join in the fight.

However, perhaps the biggest threat misinformation poses is to our collective ability to tackle climate change. Fossil-fuel industries have a history of funding research to question climate change—a history that predates the challenges of misinformation since the rise of social-media platforms. Despite this, climate-related misinformation hasn’t attracted the same media attention as the efforts to undermine democracy and vaccines. But it’s only a matter of time. A collection of NGOs and research outfits that monitored misinformation around the last two COP meetings uncovered propagators ranging from state actors, to the fossil-fuel industry and lobby groups. Their strategy is to deny, distract and delay. As governments enact difficult policy decisions to meet net-zero targets, misinformation about the science behind climate change, government plans and policies will spread. And politically motivated actors will utilise climate misinformation to further galvanise support from those disillusioned or distrustful of institutions and elites.

On the information frontlines

Tackling challenges from protecting democracy to preventing the next pandemic, will require politicians, journalists, scientists and researchers to fight misinformation with rigorous evidence and insight.

Recent Economist Impact research found that two-thirds of a global sample of scientists and researchers agreed that the pandemic underlined the importance of separating misinformation from poor-quality research. An increased number of researchers believe their most important social role is to combat misinformation.

It’s not just false information that the scientific community, journalists and others will have to contend with. Misinformation is related to bullying, harassment and intimidation. In the same survey, a third of researchers in our sample said that they or a close colleague had experienced online abuse, while one in five reported bullying and harassment as one of the biggest challenges they face with greater public attention on research. Economist Impact’s research has highlighted the prevalence of online violence against women while other research has shown the scale of the problem facing female journalists, activists and politicians.

In 2023 and beyond, the pursuit of progress—whether in health, trade or sustainability—depends not only on our ability to develop decarbonisation technologies or new vaccines, but also to understand, prepare for and win the battle for information and truth.


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