Almost three-quarters of regular internet users recognised at least one of the three main online risks – fake news, cyber bullying and fraud – but fake news ranks as by far and away the biggest concern, according to the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s World risk poll.
Pollsters Gallup conducted more than 150,000 interviews in 142 countries on the foundation’s behalf, and found that 57% of internet users, across all geographies, age groups and socio-economic backgrounds, perceived false information or fake news as their biggest concern.
People living in regions with high economic inequality, or ethic, religious or political polarisation, tended to be more concerned, which the foundation said was in danger of leading to weakening of social cohesion and trust. This was particularly pronounced in Malawi, Rwanda, Bolivia, Uganda and Senegal – where the worry was cited by over 80% of all respondents.
Despite this, the poll also found significant numbers of people who were not at all aware of the risk of misinformation. Richard Clegg, chief executive of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, said this was a clear threat to safety.
“If you aren’t aware that information can be wrong, you are at risk,” he said. “It is vital, as more and more people access the internet, that they are equipped with the skills to enable them to question the validity of the information they see online.”
When it came to online fraud – which is thought to cost the world economy $600bn a year – 45% of global internet users raised concerns, which were more pronounced among older age groups and more educated people. Geographically, people living in Western Europe worried most about falling victim to online fraud – well over two-thirds in Portugal, France, Spain, the UK and Italy.
Turning to cyber bullying, the third greatest concern identified in the polling, globally, 30% said they were worried about this, divided more sharply by age, with people under 29 the most affected. Cyber bullying was found to be a bigger concern in lower-income economies, probably linked to younger overall populations.
The foundation said that cyber risk in general was an area where people were becoming increasingly highly sensitised to potential harm, thanks to high-profile cyber incidents, the growing presence of misinformation and fake claims, but more positively also because of more sustained risk education campaigns. People are alert to the risks, said Clegg, but the challenge is to empower them to protect themselves better.
“As internet access continues to spread in low-income regions, governments should be aware of younger users’ vulnerability to internet bullying and fraud and work with these communities to design intervention and prevention strategies to address these risks,” he said.
Philip Howard from the Oxford Internet Institute said: “Understanding people’s fears means we can work with technology companies and regulators to ensure they understand the importance of protecting human rights through the technology they develop, in order to make people feel safe as well as be safe.
“It also allows us to equip people with the knowledge to know where the risks, as well as the benefits, of technology exist.”