To Fight Disinformation, We Need to Weaponise the Truth

The most dangerous form of cyberwar is the accelerating war to hijack our minds and belief systems


Weaponizing the truth


Computational warfare and disinformation campaigns will, in 2020, become a more serious threat than physical war, and we will have to rethink the weapons we deploy to fight them.

We often think of cyberwar as hacking things like financial networks, nuclear-power plants and political-campaign emails, but the most dangerous form of cyberwar is the accelerating war to hijack our minds and belief systems. This is an attack on truth – and democratic countries are most at risk.

“Netwar” – information-related conflict at a grand level among nations or societies – took off in the early 1990s. It has been on a low-level simmer ever since, but is likely to boil over in 2020 as the primary – and perhaps preferred – method by which states jockey for power in the global system. In 2013, Russian General Valery Gerasimov wrote, “the role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.” Russia’s actions since then have demonstrated its continuing commitment to that doctrine.

Cybersecurity researcher Ben Nimmo describes Russia’s approach in terms of the “4Ds”: dismiss critics, distort facts, distract from other issues, dismay the audiences. And indeed Russia has been leading the way in using disinformation-based warfare against other nations. But others are now joining them.

Last year Iran deployed fake news, fake social-media accounts and bots to spread disinformation about the downing of a US drone and subsequent seizure of a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. And China has been stoking anti-western sentiment both at home and abroad and creating a wholly different version of reality about the demonstrations in Hong Kong. What Hong Kongers and much of the western world view as a demonstration movement, China is calling “near terrorism”.

In 2020, more countries will discover the power of the 4Ds. Researchers from the Computational Propaganda Research Project at the Oxford Internet Institute have found evidence of organised social-media manipulation campaigns in 48 countries in 2018, up from 28 in 2017. And they have found that political parties and governments have spent more than $500 million on the “research, development, and implementation of psychological operations and public opinion manipulation over social media” since 2010. Based on the undoubted success of these attacks, I predict this figure will increase to over $2bn in 2020.

This type of cyberwarfare requires a new set of defences. Deterrence tools are important but an army of digital human janitors – like those employed by the major social networks to flag images for nudity and hate speech – will be powerless against an increasingly automated set of attacks. In 2020 we will realise that, to fight disinformation, we will need instead a Manhattan Project for truth.

Imagine if one million people and one million artificially intelligent agents were assigned to scale up Wikipedia or a Wikipedia-like knowledge base as part of a national defence effort.

These kinds of knowledge bases already exist inside many countries’ intelligence agencies for national security purposes, but we need a public version that keeps track of history as it unfolds minute-by-minute. This effort would be ultimately about building and enhancing our collective intelligence and establishing a baseline for what’s true or not. Democracy as we know it won’t be possible in a world where information is distrusted and everything is manipulatable.

The asymmetry in this fight is that democracies are more susceptible to manipulation than authoritarian and totalitarian regimes designed to suppress individual freedom of thought and the open flow of information. What’s at stake is democracy itself – and, importantly, a very fine line for democratic governments to walk between censorship and freedom of speech. In 2020, we will begin to weaponise truth.

Authored by Sean Gourley, but originally appeared in WIRED, UK on Jan 06, 2020
Photo credit: Joe Waldron