"They could go straight for the people, easily and cheaply."
November 29, 2018 10:02 PM   Subscribe

The Digital Maginot Line: “Cyberwar, most people thought, would be fought over infrastructure — armies of state-sponsored hackers and the occasional international crime syndicate infiltrating networks and exfiltrating secrets, or taking over critical systems. […] But as social platforms grew, acquiring standing audiences in the hundreds of millions and developing tools for precision targeting and viral amplification, a variety of malign actors simultaneously realized that there was another way. They could go straight for the people, easily and cheaply.
“There is a war happening. We are immersed in an evolving, ongoing conflict: an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality. The conflict is still being processed as a series of individual skirmishes – a collection of disparate, localized, truth-in-narrative problems – but these battles are connected. The campaigns are often perceived as organic online chaos driven by emergent, bottom-up amateur actions when a substantial amount is, in fact, helped along or instigated by systematic, top-down institutional and state actions. This is a kind of warm war; not the active, declared, open conflict of a hot war, but beyond the shadowboxing of a cold one.
“[I]n the United States, for example, we remain focused on Election 2016 and its Russian bots. As a result, we are investing in a set of inappropriate and ineffective responses: a digital Maginot Line constructed on one part of the battlefield as a deterrent against one set of tactics, while new tactics manifest elsewhere in real time. […] The combatants view this as a Hobbesian information war of all against all and a tactical arms race; the other side sees it as a peacetime civil governance problem.”
The author is Renée DiResta, Head of Policy at Data for Democracy, occasional Wired contributor, and Mozilla Fellow in Media, Misinformation and Trust (and also, co-founder of Vaccinate California).

For those who prefer video, she also gave a talk, titled "The Internet's Original Sin", about "the spread of disinformation and manipulated narratives across social networks", covering some of the same territory but with a focus on the structural issues of the network that promote malign activities online.
posted by Kadin2048 (16 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street Facebook et al.
posted by zaixfeep at 10:45 PM on November 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Digital combatants know that once speech goes up, we are loathe to moderate it; to retain this asymmetric advantage, they push an all-or-nothing absolutist narrative that moderation is censorship, that spammy distribution tactics and algorithmic amplification are somehow part of the right to free speech.

I am eternally grateful that MeFi doesn't fall into this speech-absolutist trap. It's a relief to know that we have this one corner of the Internet that isn't a total shitshow. Thank you mods for all that you do!
posted by joedan at 10:57 PM on November 29, 2018 [29 favorites]

If only we'd been teaching media literacy beginning in elementary school across the past 20-30 years when it started to become apparent it was a necessary skill, we might have built up a curriculum which met today's challenges and a generation of resilient community members who were aware of exactly how media works and how to spot manipulation.

Alas, we didn't do that, and now here we are.
posted by hippybear at 10:59 PM on November 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

Misinfo is a problem, but it's not necessarily driven by "Russia" or whatever. For some reason people eat this shit up. People love fake news. And other people capitalize on that love.

It's like affiliate marketing: tap into some crazy shit that for some reason people want to read and share and talk about about (for example, Hillary Clinton runs a Satanic pedophile ring etc etc), and turn it into a product (website with articles).

Next, send traffic to the site. You used to be able to use Facebook and Google advertising for this, although things have been tightened up a lot. You also use social channels, like Reddit, but also plain Facebook posts.

Meanwhile, you've set up a huge amount of display ads on your website: a popup when visitors arrive, and display ads filling any available space. The display ads serve ads for equally crazy shit. Some of your traffic will click on your ads. You get paid when they click on the ads. Ideally, your payout is greater than the cost of acquisition.

"Fake news" (I prefer the term misinformation) is filled with these kinds of marketing plays. The more sophisticated sites use the traffic to buy stupid things like DVDs or colloidal silver or ebooks.

The dumb thing is that this is just the continuation of "old, weird America." Late night radio shows like Dreamland. Nothing new.

Although, as a Gen Xer, I think it's fucking crazy that in 2018 Nazis have been mainstreamed and fewer bougies are vaccinating their kids. Talk about entropy!
posted by JamesBay at 11:17 PM on November 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

Misinfo is a problem, but it's not necessarily driven by "Russia" or whatever.

Okay, yes, it's not driven by Russia (or "Russia", whatever that is). But it exists. As does Disinfo -- which is not the same as Misinfo. If you get my meaning, if you catch my drift.

For some reason people eat this shit up. People love fake news.

Gossip has long held a lure, as has "inside info", "being the first to know" and any number of other things which appeal to the part of the human psyche which desires to gain power through exclusive knowledge they can leverage over others. Even if the only leverage is "I knew it first", it still garners some form of respect among a slice of the population.

And other people capitalize on that love.

Yup! And sometimes the "other people" are people we entirely aren't expecting and they are doing it either very low-key or are doing it wearing a mask. And we as a society need to be willing to look at these matters with more skepticism and analysis than ever before in order to maintain ourselves for ourselves.
posted by hippybear at 11:27 PM on November 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

And we as a society need to be willing to look at these matters with more skepticism and analysis than ever before...

True, but I have no idea how we get from here (unquestioned acceptance of utterly ridiculous lies) to there (skepticism).

I mean seriously, what do you do when there are enough willing morons to turn "PizzaGate" into a thing?

That was beyond stupid; the people who fell for it (or who pretended to fall for it because they thought that would be "ironic" [cue pedantry re: irony]) are beyond repair/redemption. The Flat Earth people are making a comeback and Buzz Aldrin will soon be dead. Do we need to fob them off on a latter-day Marinetti, hoping that they'll get themselves slaughtered on a sun-baked hillside or desperately humid tidal flat? Is there an automated defense line we can fling them against without worrying about the deaths of innocents on the other side?

...or can we make do with a sad masquerade, a fake reality TV show where they get their pants scared off and subsequently reevaluate what remains of their cheap plastic lives before redeeming themselves Cobra Kai-style?
posted by aramaic at 11:43 PM on November 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think maybe networked computers are a bad idea.

when I started saying that it was a joke about battlestar galactica but now I believe it.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 2:13 AM on November 30, 2018 [23 favorites]

I would like to join your crew Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon.
posted by Molesome at 2:39 AM on November 30, 2018

The problem is that being skeptical takes work. Being entertained is much easier.
posted by chavenet at 3:14 AM on November 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

The problem is that being skeptical takes work. Being entertained is much easier.

Being thoughtfully skeptical takes work. Plenty of people are arbitrarily skeptical, or skeptical in motivated ways. Climate change deniers themselves as skeptics, as do those who are certain the mainstream media is ultraliberal.
posted by kewb at 3:50 AM on November 30, 2018 [13 favorites]

Isn't there also an exposure effect to consider? People who were born into using the Internet seem less susceptible than people who see it as akin to TV or print media.
posted by Molesome at 4:22 AM on November 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Isn't there also an exposure effect to consider? People who were born into using the Internet seem less susceptible than people who see it as akin to TV or print media.

I'd think it's too early to tell about that, teens aren't going to respond to media like adults and seniors do no matter what the manner of transmission might be. How they grow with it will be the more important detail, but the focus on "real people" as celebrities doesn't bode well for internet skepticism. As an example, even here on Metafilter there are conversations where people seem to take edited internet shows as more "real" than they probably should just because they are constructed to send that message.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:35 AM on November 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

What happened to all the news validation initiatives? Shouldn't there be a truthcheck(tm) icon hovering over these posts by now?
posted by sammyo at 5:36 AM on November 30, 2018

The "truthcheck(tm)" are all *them*, i.e. part of the conspiracy. The people that tell me what I want to hear are my friends.
posted by aleph at 6:14 AM on November 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

What happened to all the news validation initiatives? Shouldn't there be a truthcheck(tm) icon hovering over these posts by now?

Why would you trust a business to fact check things for you? They're just in it for the money, same as the media is.

Since I'm a Taoist, I think a lot about yin and yang a lot anyway, but I've been thinking lately that it's probably bad to use a masculine model (e.g. business) to combat another masculine model (e.g. war, in this case cyberwar). In such a contest, whoever has the biggest muscles wins, and naturally the incumbent state and corporate actors have a lot more resources than any upstart business would.

I think instead of trying to fight masculine models head-to-head, it's better to try to balance them, which means turning to feminine models (e.g. whisper networks).

A good example of this in action, I think, is ContraPoints on YouTube: she started out by fighting Nazis (masculine model) by using debate (masculine model); but she found much greater success—at least, I think she did—when she switched to running circles around them using more feminine models like storytelling and seduction.

Similarly, we're all worried about fascism, but a violent revolution has no hope of solving that. A better way instead might be to combat it with the more feminine model of growing parallel social and economic structures at small, local scales that gradually supplant the capitalist/corporate structures that the fascists rely on.
posted by ragtag at 8:22 AM on November 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

If you wanted to look at this through a military lens, you could think of this as psy-ops against a civilian population.

And, of course, similar techniques could be used during a military engagement - “cyberwar” doesn’t have to mean missiles refusing to fire, of helicopters falling from the sky... From this report [pdf], via Scholar’s Stage (well worth reading their analysis):
The cyber attacks varied. Sailors stationed at the 7th Fleet' s homeport in Japan awoke one day to find their financial accounts, and those of their dependents, empty. Checking, savings, retirement funds: simply gone. The Marines based on Okinawa were under virtual siege by the populace, whose simmering resentment at their presence had boiled over after a YouTube video posted under the account of a Marine stationed there had gone viral. The video featured a dozen Marines drunkenly gang-raping two teenaged Okinawan girls. The video was vivid, the girls' cries heart-wrenching the cheers of Marines sickening And all of it fake. The National Security Agency's initial analysis of the video had uncovered digital fingerprints showing that it was a computer-assisted lie, and could prove that the Marine's account under which it had been posted was hacked. But the damage had been done.

There was the commanding officer of Edwards Air Force Base whose Internet browser history had been posted on the squadron's Facebook page. His command turned on him as a pervert; his weak protestations that he had not visited most of the posted links could not counter his admission that he had, in fact, trafficked some of them. Lies mixed with the truth. Soldiers at Fort Sill were at each other's throats thanks to a series of text messages that allegedly unearthed an adultery ring on base.

The variations elsewhere were endless. Marines suddenly owed hundreds of thousands of dollars on credit lines they had never opened; sailors received death threats on their Twitter feeds; spouses and female service members had private pictures of themselves plastered across the Internet; older service members received notifications about cancerous conditions discovered in their latest physical.

Leadership was not exempt. Under the hashtag # PACOMMUSTGO a dozen women allegedly described harassment by the commander of Pacific command. Editorial writers demanded that, under the administration's "zero tolerance" policy, he step aside while Congress held hearings.

There was not an American service member or dependent whose life had not been digitally turned upside down. In response, the secretary had declared "an operational pause," directing units to stand down until things were sorted out.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 12:26 PM on November 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

« Older Photoshop is like taxidermy, except no one has to...   |   Inhabit yourself Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments