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Scary world of cyberspace

And so it came to pass that in the winter of 2016, the world hit a tipping point that was revealed by the most unlikely collection of actors: Vladimir Putin, Jeff Bezos, Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg and Macy's department store. Who would have thought it?

And what was this tipping point?

It was the moment when we realised that a critical mass of our lives and work had shifted away from the terrestrial world to a realm known as "cyberspace". That is to say, a critical mass of our interactions had moved to a realm where we are all connected but no one is in charge.

After all, there are no stop lights in cyberspace, no police officers walking the beat, no courts, no judges, no God who smites evil and rewards good, and certainly no "1-800-Call-If-Putin-Hacks-Your- Election". If someone slimes you on Twitter or Facebook, unless it is a death threat, good luck getting it removed, especially if it is done anonymously.

And yet this realm is where we now spend increasing hours of our day. Cyberspace is now where we do more of our shopping, more of our dating, more of our friendship-making and sustaining, more of our learning, more of our commerce, more of our teaching, more of our communicating, more of our news-broadcasting and news-seeking, and more of our selling of goods, services and ideas.

It is where both the US President-elect and the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) can communicate with equal ease with tens of millions of their respective followers through Twitter - without editors, fact-checkers, libel lawyers or other filters.

Cyberspace is where both the US President-elect and the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) can communicate with equal ease with tens of millions of their respective followers through Twitter - without editors, fact-checkers, libel lawyers or other filters... 2016 will be remembered as the year when we fully grasped just how scary that can be.

And, I would argue, 2016 will be remembered as the year when we fully grasped just how scary that can be - how easy it was for a presidential candidate to tweet untruths and half-truths faster than anyone could correct him, how cheap it was for Russia to intervene on Mr Trump's behalf with hacks of Democratic operatives' computers, and how unnerving it was to hear Yahoo's chief information security officer Bob Lord say that his company still had "not been able to identify" how one billion Yahoo accounts were hacked in 2013.

Even US President Barack Obama was taken aback by the speed at which this tipping point tipped. "I think that I underestimated the degree to which, in this new information age, it is possible for misinformation, for cyber hacking and so forth, to have an impact on our open societies," he told ABC News' This Week.

Last Christmas, Amazon.com taught yet more traditional retailers how hard the cyber tipping point has hit retailing. Last week, Macy's said it was slashing 10,000 jobs and closing dozens of stores because, according to The Wall Street Journal, "Macy's hasn't been able to solve consumers' shift to online shopping".

At first, Mr Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, insisted that fake news stories carried by Facebook "surely had no impact" on the election and that saying so was "a pretty crazy idea". But in a very close election, it was not crazy at all. Facebook - which wants all the readers and advertisers of mainstream media but not to be saddled with its human editors and fact-checkers - is now taking more seriously its responsibilities as a news purveyor in cyberspace.

Mr Alan Cohen, chief commercial officer of cyber security firm Illumio, noted in an interview on siliconAngle.com that the reason this tipping point tipped now was because so many companies, governments, universities, political parties and individuals have concentrated a critical mass of their data in enterprise data centres and cloud computing environments. Ten years ago, Mr Cohen said, bad guys did not have the capabilities to get at all this data and extract it, but "now they do", and as more creative tools such as big data and artificial intelligence get "weaponised", this will become an even bigger problem. It is a huge legal, moral and strategic problem, and it will require, Mr Cohen said, "a new social compact" to defuse.

Work on that compact has to start with every school teaching children digital civics. And that begins with teaching them that the Internet is an open sewer of untreated, unfiltered information, where they need to bring scepticism and critical thinking to everything they read, and basic civic decency to everything they write.

A Stanford Graduate School of Education study published in November found "a dismaying inability by students to reason about information they see on the Internet". The study said: "Students had a hard time distinguishing advertisements from news articles or identifying where information came from... One assessment required middle schoolers to explain why they might not trust an article on financial planning that was written by a bank executive and sponsored by a bank. The researchers found that many students did not cite authorship or article sponsorship as key reasons for not believing the article." Professor Sam Wineburg, the lead author of the report, said: "Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media, they are equally perceptive about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite to be true."

In an era when more and more of our lives have moved to this digital realm, that is downright scary.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2017, with the headline 'Scary world of cyberspace'. Print Edition | Subscribe