They think that intelligence is about noticing things are relevant (detecting patterns); in a complex world, intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant (avoiding false patterns).
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb @nntaleb
In October 2016, in lead up to the US Presidential Elections, you’ll remember everybody was spinning about the WikiLeaks email dump. You can make the argument that people are still spinning today.
One thing I remember about that time was that every pundit suddenly became an expert in cybersecurity. It’s bothersome to see that public figures still haven’t figured out the difference between “hacked” and “stolen” and “copied” as they continue to make commentary today. Understanding these differences matters. But perhaps they do not matter as much when a narrative is trying to be fulfilled, or as the title of one of Scott Adams’ books says, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.
That’s part of the reason why I wrote “Has Information Gone Rogue?” in October 2016, available here (or on LinkedIn, here). Two and a half years later, I’d say the article still holds true. The other reason I wrote that article was because I was upset to see too many influential voices conflating cybersecurity and information warfare. They are undoubtedly connected in the 21st Century, but this conflation almost felt deliberate in order to deceive. And if that is the case, then only the utterly naïve would believe this wasn’t done for some political purpose.
The obvious question that stems from that is this: is that behavior good for society?
Unless you’ve been in hibernation, you will have seen an uptick in the number of references to “disinformation” and “information warfare” in the last couple of years. Let’s not forget “fake news” while we’re at it. Here’s a quick and informal comparison to demonstrate what I mean:
- From June 1st to November 1st, 2016, a Google search of “information warfare” brings only one Top 10 hit that relates to Trump and Putin, where the rest are relatively benign, even boring sounding academic and government papers and a YouTube video stating that information warfare is primarily a US military concept; a search in March 2019 has a Wikipedia page, menacing language about the dangers of information warfare, news results, Russia, the UK, and so on. All on the first page.
- From June 1st to November 1st, 2016, a Google search of “disinformation” has many hits on Russia which is no surprise really, since it’s commonly accepted that the communist Soviets are responsible for the concept, stemming from desinformatzia; March 2019 of the same term brings up the Wikipedia page, news results, a handbook from the UN, and references to fake news. You get the point.
- From June 1st to November 1st, 2016, a Google search of “fake news” is almost entirely dedicated to Facebook allowing “fake news” to trend because of some algorithm mishap; the same in March 2019 brings you news stories about vaccines, a Wikipedia page, how to spot fake news, studies on fake news, fact-checking, and a whole bunch of politics.
Note: if you try to run these searches, you may come up with different results based on your browser settings, whether you are logged in to certain services, and where you are searching from. The searches above were conducted from a US-based IP address. Archiving the searches using a service will produce different results also because of where the archiving services are based.
Why do these search results matter? Well, because as I mentioned in this previous article, if we’re not careful, we’re going to tear ourselves apart with social media, information warfare, and AI acting as the amplifiers.
I highly suggest you review this article by Andy Patel @r0zetta who put together an incredible piece on why social network analysis is important. The visuals are stunning. And here is what I believe the most important line of the piece is:
Once an adversary understands how those underlying algorithms work, they’ll game them to their advantage.
Right there is where you get the marriage between cybersecurity and information warfare. You see, it’s all one big game to manipulate to you. And that should absolutely terrify you because you don’t necessarily know who the actors are.
If you’re not up to reading The Art of War by Sun Tzu, just take away this line:
All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
So again, do you really know who the actors are?
One of my favorite tweets of the year so far is courtesy of Olexander Scherba, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Austria, who translated a comment of Vladislav Surkov, one of Vladimir Putin’s advisors. The tweet says:
Putin’s adviser Surkov to those “who cry about Russian meddling in elections”: “Things are much more serious: we meddle with your brains, we change your conscience – and you have no clue what to do about it”.
Admittedly I laughed myself right off my chair when I read this because when your intent is to manipulate, and you have the horsepower of technology behind you, anything is possible. It doesn’t matter if it’s Silicon Valley, Russian oligarchs, Chinese cultural lobbyists, politicians, or anybody else for that matter. In fact, your only hope is to fight – more specifically, game – the technology, just as Andy Patel says above. It’s quite funny (upsetting?) that in the 21st Century if you want anything that resembles privacy online (public service announcement: no such thing), you need to become a master at deceiving the technology.
Not sure if people are ready to live their lives like that. And it’s not exactly easy either when one slip up can turn you into a big bright red flashing beacon. You see, if you genuinely accept that we are in a cultural, ideological and economic war, then the concept of “winning the hearts and minds” to emotionally sway supporters to a specific side (a war concept dating back to the 1800s, but could go back well further into history) is not so farfetched. In fact, this behavior has become so common we may as well start considering it a commodity. The only difference today is the technology.
Those who can control, adapt, modify, and manipulate the technology are the real power holders. The larger question becomes: can you see through their manipulation or have you given into it, wittingly or unwittingly? That’s the real question.
And it’s also for this reason that if you’re not on your algorithm and meme games, you’re simultaneously going to get flattened on two fronts: cybersecurity and information warfare. All of which brings me to the opening quote by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
In the Big Data era, where have we focused many of our efforts? It’s to find patterns. We have placed such emphasis on analyzing data, particularly through the use of algorithms that we may have steamrolled past the most important questions: are our underlying assumptions correct? If we act as though the algorithm is “correct” we will make our decisions based on that algorithm because we have trust – more accurately, confidence – in it. But if the algorithm is wrong, whether it is because it has some foundational flaw or is manipulated by some covert or intentional way, then our confidence is misplaced. The net result of that will be faulty decisions, some of which will have second, third and fourth order consequences which are nearly impossible to predict in such a complex world.
That’s why ignoring things that are irrelevant have such high importance. On one end, we are experiencing an Orwellian level of surveillance, but simultaneously, we are experiencing a Huxleyan level of irrelevancy that is clouding our decision-making. One of the best accidental finds for me this year has been this article, Mental Models: The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions (109 Models Explained). Learn how to make better decisions and you’ll be better off at picking off phishing attempts, filtering through fake news, and quite candidly, live a better life.
Therefore, in closing, perhaps we should consider to focus more on cutting out the garbage as opposed to finding patterns in garbage, a play on what Nassim Nicholas Taleb says. Maybe that’s where real intelligence lies in the 21st Century. And that not only goes for algorithms, but for personal decision-making.
Who knows, such a change in behavior may even awaken something inside of you to see something you’ve never seen before.