Tearing Us Apart At Ludicrous Speed

Social Media, Information Warfare & AI

Sometime in the future, if the history writers are fair, they will look closely at nearly 96 hours in mid-January 2019, beginning in the late evening of January 17th.  Over the coming hours and days, two stories – collectively – made far too many people absolutely lose their minds.  The reporting surrounding the BuzzFeed story and Covington incident was nothing short of toxic.

Let me repeat: the reporting of these events was toxic and such behavior is capable of destroying otherwise functioning if imperfect, societies.  And I will openly wonder: is this what some people are actually vying for?  (Note to reader: societies will always be imperfect.)

One of the first things you learn in emergency management training is to not trust the first media reports for the simple reason that theater and information flows change and move fast.  That means the ability to corroborate and verify what you are processing is just not there.  You would hope that seasoned media professionals, who have the capability to see the errors and corrections unfold in real-time, would know this.  Likely, many have even witnessed this information breakdown throughout their careers.  Perhaps they know this rule and just simply ignore it for reasons they can only explain.  I don’t know.

But in the hyper-time-sensitive media business, including corners of social media, there seems to be drone-like worship of the Ricky Bobby “if you’re not first, you’re last” mantra.  That rule is probably good for car races.  Not so good if you’re trying to build trust or persuade somebody.  Glenn Greenwald points out some recent galactic media failures here, which likely did on a number on the trust meter. The problem with the “if you’re not first, you’re last” mantra in the news business is that it does not place a premium on facts.  Rather, today’s “if you’re not first, you’re last” attitude places a premium on assumption and we all should know what “assumption” is (NSFW edition).

The troubling aspect of the “premium on assumption” reporting method is that it seems to be increasingly deliberate in order to fit a narrative, elicit response, or both.

How many times did you hear “if true” on January 18th?

You know, Godzilla and I, while lounging on the beach, sipping on some moonshine only found on Saturn, just finished a lively conversation on persuasion techniques and tearing apart cities.  Godzilla was wearing the coolest sunglasses ever and had on these blinding bright multicolored swimming trunks (okay meme warriors, get to Photoshop). If true, that would be a pretty big story!

Those two words have taken top prize in the I’m Deflecting Personal Responsibility Battle of 2019 and we’re only 18 days in.  Bart Simpson’s “I didn’t do it” doesn’t match up to those two words.  Nor can Joliet Jake’s “it wasn’t my fault” one-for-the-ages performances either. This is why, given recent behavior and no fear of consequence, Scott Adams is one billion percent right: we do live in a world where facts don’t matter.  And I will openly wonder: what can I do to get Scott Adams to re-tweet this story.  Is linking to his supercalifragilisticexpialidocious book enough?  Maybe he’ll be more interested to know I moonlighted as a DJ.  Or maybe he’ll pull off some mastery and get Robert Cialdini to do it instead?  Maybe it’s one of you reading this piece that will take the lead and send it to Scott and see if you yes you! – are the super talented persuader that will him over?  Up to the challenge?  I know one of you can do it and claim bragging rights for the h/t.

(There has to be a Dilbert cartoon idea in here somewhere.)

If you’re lucky enough to track down a copy of Dezinformatsia: Active Measures in Soviet Strategy by Richard H. Schultz and Roy Godson (used copies are readily available, new ones harder to find) you’ll come to appreciate that some old school information warfare battle-hardened Soviet agents would be giggle-snorting at what is going on today.  By the way, some points of clarification, which may add to the recent loss of minds:

  • Soviet does not equal Russian
  • Russian does not equal Communist
  • Communist usually does equal Soviet (not all citizens of the former Soviet Union were willing communists)

So why would these old school Soviet masters of disinformation – many of which were blind slaves to the one-thought, one-mind, one-party ideology and way of life – be giggle-snorting?  It’s because they’d be seeing their own techniques being used in hyperdrive to do the one thing they couldn’t do fast enough: tear apart the West. If they had today’s technological tools in the 1960s, in their hands they’d hold an arsenal of weapons that could be used for blackmail (social media), forgery (information warfare), and analysis (AI), all favorite tools the Soviet intelligence agencies regularly used to subvert and control. Furthermore, they’d have a huge supply of possible agents of influence, which Schultz and Godson define as:

An agent of influence is a person who uses his or her position, influence, power and credibility to promote the objective of a foreign power in ways unattributable to that power.  Influence operations may be carried out by controlled agents (persons are recruited, and advance interests of a foreign power in response to specific orders); “trusted contacts” (person who consciously collaborate to advance the objections of a foreign power, but who are not formally recruited and controlled); and unwitting but manipulated individuals.

Rip away the word “foreign” and you see this can apply to just about anything.  Couple an agent of influence with today’s tech tools and the persuasion techniques Scott Adams and Robert Cialdini speak of in their books and you fall right into the first trap Cialdini speaks of in Pre-suasion, the ethics of persuasive success, where psychological tactics can be used for good or ill, designed to fool and exploit, or inform and enhance.

Are your ideas and opinions really your own or are you being manipulated?

The problem we face in hypertime – the period we are living in right now because everything moves so fast – is that we don’t get the full picture.  Largely, this is a result of the reckless “if you’re not first, you’re last” mantra which invites people to travel at ludicrous speed (we know how that ends).  Furthermore, we need to accept that in some cases we may never get the full picture, which is why if we get to stumble on a story that confirms all our biases, slow down, re-think, and doubt until you can confirm.  Yes, doubt yourself because you may have a blind spot if something is suddenly is confirming all of your biases.  Robby Soave explains well here the problem with the incidents mentioned above and why it’s important to always be on the lookout for our personal blind spots.

For those of you who follow my writings regularly, you may comment that this isn’t really a cybersecurity piece.  But I will argue to you that it is.  You see, most cybersecurity issues can be put into one of two buckets, if not both: a communications problem or an information problem. The problem we face with our personal data is that it’s scattered all over the place (a communications problem) and once it is, we have little control on how it will be used (an information problem).  This scenario is, in fact, the perfect theater for your adversaries to work against you.  Theater, also known as daily life, has become a smorgasbord of 1984, Brave New World, and The Matrix with occasional flashes of Looney Tunes land just to keep it real.

You see, each of us is leaving behind greater digital footprints, in many cases without our permission or knowledge.  I’m personally tiring of having to walk with my head down or hand over my face as I go through public transit systems.  I don’t care about the security cameras.  I expect those and many of them are necessary in public spaces.

So what bugs me?  It’s all the random people with their cameras on and microphones listening, blabbering away on some video chat or taking selfies that capture my face or voice in the background. Photography laws in public spaces are generally pretty clear (here is one guide I found) but those laws govern public photography, not some twisted consent that allows your face and voice crunched and analyzed through some app or service.  I never agreed to the terms and conditions on the app running on your phone.  You did.  Why am I getting caught up in your behavior?  (Note for future: this scenario could possibly be galactic-sized class action suit waiting to happen.)

Did I give permission to be captured by some app on somebody’s phone that can run facial recognition on me and store my mug on some unknown database?  No, I didn’t. Did I give permission to have somebody’s Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa capture my voice and analyze it just because their device is within earshot of what I am saying?  No, I didn’t.   On top of that, if somebody is uploading to social media, they’re creating a whole bunch of open source intelligence (OSINT) on me that I never wanted to be there.  Who is liable for that?  Where is my remedy?

If you haven’t heard what an “OSINT creeper” is, take a listen to this podcast and have your entire day ruined.  And once you’re done listening to that, remember that AI will be doing all of this at ludicrous speed with a click of a button soon.

You see, we’ve reached the point where you can’t even make an inquiry call today without your voice being recorded, stored and analyzed somewhere.  Just look at what Google Local Services is up to these days.  It’s pretty creepy.

I promise you all this will be a bigger problem in the future, which why I said last year we have already entered “The End of Evidence” age.  All these data snippets of yours are laying somewhere, ready to be analyzed, used, hacked, and yes, even altered and manipulated, with ever-more powerful technologies coming out each day, to serve an interest that may very well be not your best interest.  We will certainly be living in dystopian times if we get to a place where #DeepFakes can become the norm and made on consumer hardware and software. Furthermore, given that the Overton Window also seems to be closing at ludicrous speed, I get particularly worked up when people use the “I have nothing to hide” argument.  That’s not the darn-tooting point!  Social standards and expectations are changing and what you think is no big deal today could be considered unthinkable10 years from now, which is why the current day head exploding is so unbelievably dangerous and easy to exploit.  The shrieking doesn’t open the Overton Window, it closes it.  Read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s thoughts on how the most intolerant wins.

Without some real sober thought, the path of the current social media, information warfare, and AI mix has only one ultimate destination: control over the other.  And if you’re following along with the playbook, the entire point of a smear is to destroy legitimacy.  It doesn’t even need to be true.  Just do the damage, because the stench will always stay behind.  That is the intent and in the digital space, you won’t have Cialdini’s go-to interrogation filming technique to balance out the carnage being inflicted on you.  The Covington incident completely proves Cialdini’s camera perspective point.

I begin to wrap up with something that really grabbed my attention in Dezinformatsia (keep in mind, this book was written in 1984 and was one of the first Western books on the topic).  There is an interview with a Soviet bloc officer that defected.  His role was Deputy Chief of the Disinformation Department (that’s not a typo) of the Czech intelligence service. He noted that the specific effectiveness of an active measures operation wasn’t the greatest concern to Communist leaders.  Rather, their measure of success was the cumulative effect over time of multiple operations.  And this line jumped out at me, “the Communist view of time is much different than the Western view.”  Somebody’s playing the long game while many of the rest of us are taking part in self-inflicted short-term destruction.  This is the consequence of the “if you’re not first, you’re last” attitude which places a premium on assumption.  It takes advantage of those of us who are impressionable.

If you’re asking yourself why I added in all this Soviet/Communist talk into this piece, the reason is simple: if these people had the tools that are available today, they could unleash a world of hurt on just about anybody.  Remember what I said, all roads ultimately lead to control over the other. Apparently Nicolae Ceaușescu, General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party and President of Romania, well known for his love of mass surveillance and suppression of human rights, apparently had a desire to implant a camera into every television in the country, giving his police state apparatus the ability to spy into every home.  Clearly, he wasn’t thinking “small” enough.  Today everybody carries a camera, microphone and position tracker in their pocket, volunteering their life away for nothing.

Just remember, under today’s rules which are constantly changing, there does seem to be one constant: everything you say will be used against you in a court of public opinion.  That means your next job interview, your next date, your next university application, your next anything that matters could all hinge on something completely innocuous, taken out of context, misrepresented, or worst, forged, all to serve somebody else’s interest.  You’re just fodder to them and it won’t matter one bit if you said it was said three decades ago or three seconds ago.

Don’t you feel better that all so much of this data on you is out in the wild?  Best we stop this reckless behavior because it’s tearing us apart.

George Platsis
George Platsis works the private, public and non-profit sectors to address their strategic, operational and training needs, focusing on projects related to business development, risk/crisis management, resilience, cyber and information security, and cultural relations. His primary focus is on human factor vulnerabilities related to cybersecurity, information security, and data security by separating the network and information risk areas. Some of the issues he tackles include: business continuity, resilience strategies, social engineering, insider threats, psychological warfare, data manipulation and integrity, and information dominance. He is a team member of SDI Cyber, based in Washington, DC, an independent consultant, educator, and a founding member of The #CyberAvengers. He holds a Bachelor of Business Administration and has graduate degrees in Business Administration, Disaster and Emergency Management, Law, and Cybersecurity. He has completed executive education in national/international security and cybersecurity at Harvard, Syracuse University, and Canadian Forces College.