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Who watches the watchers when it comes to disinformation?

Global Disinformation Index set out to counter misleading online content. Instead it seems to be stifling legitimate debate

A 2024 Irish general election now looks rather less likely since our change of taoiseach, but the much-trumpeted Year of Elections rolls on regardless, with the largest one of all, in India, now at the start of its six weeks of voting. European parliamentary and Irish local elections take place here in early June, the defenestration from Westminster of the Conservative parliamentary party will probably happen in late autumn, and looming over everything is the dark shadow of November 5th in the United States.

Amid all the background hum that accompanies such events, one word can repeatedly be heard: disinformation. It has been around since the 19th century, but most trace its current usage to a 1950s KGB black propaganda unit handbook, which defined дезинформация, or dezinformatsiya, as “dissemination (in the press, on the radio, etc) of false reports intended to mislead public opinion”.

It was in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the US election of 2016 that concerns went mainstream over the ways in which the digital-information ecosphere was being manipulated by bad actors to mislead and misdirect. Multiple research projects were launched in universities. Nonprofit fact-checking organisations sprang up with the support of philanthropic funders. Given the sheer impossibility of manually monitoring all the content published hourly on the internet, researchers tried to figure out alternative strategies.

In February 2020 The Irish Times reported that a nonprofit called Global Disinformation Index had looked at 20,000 websites flagged by PolitiFact as publishers of disinformation. Estimated advertising spend across all of these sites amounted to roughly $235 million, which was then about €210 million, a year.


This “programmatic advertising” is bought and sold at automated auctions. This means advertisers don’t know what sort of content their ads might appear beside, which poses a reputational risk. Over the years a service industry had developed to rate and guarantee the quality of these websites. Global Disinformation Index and groups like it took that process a step further, using the same technology to rate news sites for accuracy and reliability. The intention was to drive more revenue towards legitimate, high-quality news media and away from misleading content.

Fast-forward four years to this week. Freddie Sayers is the editor of Unherd, a UK-based news and opinion website. According to Sayers, Unherd had been trying to understand why its web traffic and audience reach were not being matched by the amount of advertising revenue it was receiving. The reason, he says, was its very low rating from Global Disinformation Index. As a result, Unherd only received between 2 per cent and 6 per cent of the ad revenue it might have expected.

When Unherd queried the rating, Global Disinformation Index cited articles by the philosopher Kathleen Stock, the feminist activist Julie Bindel and Debbie Hayton, a trans woman opposed to the gender policies of mainstream LGBTQ advocacy groups.

“Our team re-reviewed the domain, the rating will not change as it continues to have anti-LGBTQI+ narratives,” Global Disinformation Index’s response read. “The site authors have been called out for being anti-trans. Kathleen Stock is acknowledged as a ‘prominent gender-critical’ feminist”.

Sayers points out that “gender-critical” opinions, such as the belief that biological sex differences exist, are specifically protected under UK law and that polling shows they are also held by most people in Britain. A major review published last week by the senior paediatrician Hilary Cass found that profound failures in the treatment by the NHS of children and young people experiencing gender distress were due in part to an atmosphere that discouraged open debate,

What to make of this? Sayers believes that in the years since its establishment, in 2018, Global Disinformation Index has been engaged in “mission creep”. From its original stated mission of battling “deliberately false content, designed to deceive”, it has moved to targeting any content that deploys what it calls an “adversarial narrative”. The new definition, the company founder Clare Melford explained in 2021, allows the organisation to target content it deems “harmful” or “divisive”.

That seems quite a shift. It provides ammunition to those critics of the entire anti-disinformation project, mostly from the right, who argue that it is merely an thinly veiled attempt to censor views that the progressive left considers dangerous or distasteful. But it should be just as concerning to anyone who believes that society really does need better guardrails against the tidal wave of online disinformation.

So who watches the watchers? Worryingly, Global Disinformation Index says it has received funds from the UK and German governments, the European Union and Disinfo Cloud, a body created and funded by the US state department.

If Sayers’s account is accurate (and it has yet to be rebutted), it would appear that an organisation financed by several governments is using opaque strategies to stifle legitimate debate in a democracy. It’s the sort of conspiracy theory you might come across on a dodgy website. Except this time it might be true.