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U.S. Intelligence Report Warns of Global Consequences of Social Fragmentation

Income inequality could grow worse, the report said, tying it at times to information inequality.

The “trust gap” between an informed public that has faith in a government solution and a wider public with deep skepticism of institutions is growing, the report said.

The problem is made worse by technology. Algorithms, social media and artificial intelligence have replaced expertise in deciding what information spreads most widely, and that has made the public more vulnerable to misinformation.

Still, positive demographic changes in recent decades, with people moving out of poverty and into the middle class, had creating “rising expectations,” said Maria Langan-Riekhof, the director of the intelligence council’s strategic futures group. But fears of falling income across the globe are growing, a worrisome trend when coupled with changes in how information is shared and social divisions have deepened.

“Those concerns are leading people to look for the security of trusted voices, but also of like-minded groups within their societies,” Ms. Langan-Riekhof said. “Overlay those trends I’m describing, and you kind of see that recipe for greater divisions, increasing fracturing. We think that is likely to continue and probably worsen.”

Over time, the report said, these trends could weaken democratic governments.

“At the same time that populations are increasingly empowered and demanding more, governments are coming under greater pressure from new challenges and more limited resources,” the report said. “This widening gap portends more political volatility, erosion of democracy and expanding roles for alternative providers of governance. Over time, these dynamics might open the door to more significant shifts in how people govern.”

The global trends report has often looked at possible future situations. In the 2017 report, one example contemplated a pandemic plunging the world into economic chaos. It envisioned nationalistic politicians eroding alliances, a drop in oil prices causing calamity and more isolationist trade practices. It also forecast a pandemic (albeit in 2023, not 2020), which restricted travel, caused economic distress and exacerbated existing trends toward isolation.

The report has discussed the risk of a pandemic for nearly two decades, said Gregory F. Treverton, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council who helped lead the 2017 effort. The 2004 report said some experts believed it was “only a matter of time” before a pandemic, he said.