ISLAMABAD: Risk specialists predicted that extreme weather and misinformation were likely to trigger a global crisis in the next couple of years, according to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Risks Report 2024, released on Wednesday.

The report warned that the widespread use of misinformation and disinformation, and tools to disseminate it, may undermine the legitimacy of newly elected governments in countries that are heading to polls in the coming years, including Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Mexico, the UK and US.

The report, released ahead of the upcoming gathering of political and business personalities from around the world, also cautioned that foreign and domestic actors alike will leverage misinformation and disinformation to further widen societal and political divides, which would emerge as the most severe global risk over the next couple of years.

Beyond elections, perceptions of reality are likely to also become more polarised, infiltrating the public discourse on issues ranging from public health to social justice. However, as truth is undermined, the risk of domestic propaganda and censorship will also rise in turn.

Global Risks Report says perceptions of reality likely to become even more polarised

In response to mis- and disinformation, governments could be increasingly empowered to control information based on what they determine to be “true”. Freedoms relating to the internet, press and access to wider sources of information that are already in decline risk descending into broader repression of information flows across a wider set of countries, the WEF report says.

“An unstable global order characterised by polarising narratives and insecurity, the worsening impacts of extreme weather and economic uncertainty are causing accelerating risks - including misinformation and disinformation - to propagate,” said Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director of World Economic Forum.

“World leaders must come together to address short-term crises as well as lay the groundwork for a more resilient, sustainable, inclusive future,” she said.

The report paints a predominantly negative outlook for the world over the next two years that is expected to worsen over the next decade.

The outlook is markedly more negative over the 10-year time horizon, with nearly two-thirds of respondents of the survey carried out by WEF, expecting a stormy or turbulent outlook.

The report, produced in partnership with Zurich Insurance Group and Marsh McLennan, draws on the views of over 1,400 global risks experts, policy-makers and industry leaders surveyed in September 2023.

The report hoped that the next decade will usher in a period of significant change, stretching the adaptive capacity to the limit. A multiplicity of entirely different futures is conceivable over this time frame, and a more positive path can be shaped through our actions to address global risks today.

Societal polarisation features among the top three risks over both the current and two-year time horizons, ranking number nine over the longer term. In addition, societal polarisation and economic downturn are seen as the most interconnected – and therefore influential – risks in the global risks network, as drivers and possible consequences of numerous risks.

The cost-of-living crisis remains a major concern in the outlook for 2024. The economic risks of inflation and economic downturn are also notable new entrants to the top 10 risk rankings over the two-year period.

Although a “softer landing” appears to be prevailing for now, the near-term outlook remains highly uncertain. There are multiple sources of continued supply-side price pressures looming over the next two years, from El Nino conditions to the potential escalation of live conflicts.

Economic uncertainty will weigh heavily across most markets, but capital will be the costliest for the most vulnerable countries. Climate-vulnerable or conflict-prone countries stand to be increasingly locked out of much-needed digital and physical infrastructure, trade and green investments and related economic opportunities.

Similarly, the convergence of technological advances and geopolitical dynamics will likely create a new set of winners and losers across advanced and developing economies alike. If commercial incentives and geopolitical imperatives, rather than public interest, remain the primary drivers of the development of artificial intelligence and other frontier technologies, the digital gap between high- and low-income countries will drive a stark disparity in the distribution of related benefits - and risks.

Vulnerable countries and communities would be left further behind, digitally isolated from turbocharged AI breakthroughs impacting economic productivity, finance, climate, education and healthcare, as well as related job creation.

Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2024

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