Weaponisation of information and a matter of national survival

Lisa was a gentle 13-year-old girl of Russian origin who lived with her parents in Germany, studied hard and had every reason to expect a great future. But one morning in January 2016, she went to school and did not return for over a day. She had been gang-raped by Muslim immigrants living in Germany and the culprits were never caught.

Americans are generally tolerant of ethnic and religious groups. But when an Islamic centre in downtown Houston, Texas, unveiled plans to convert local residents to Islam, ordinary citizens came out to demonstrate, determined to protect their community from Islamisation.

Typhoon Jebi killed at least 10 people earlier this month in Osaka, flooding the city's international airport. China's consulate on the spot acted promptly, by sending no fewer than 15 buses to evacuate stranded Chinese tourists. However, about 1,000 Taiwanese were left to fend for themselves in the flooded airport because Mr Su Chii-cherng, Taiwan's representative in Osaka, did nothing for them.

That, in a nutshell, is supposedly the difference between a powerful state, which properly looks after its interests, and Taiwan, which cannot be a state because it fails to perform even the basic duty of protecting its people.

What is the common thread among these three episodes, spread over three continents? All are products of fake news. These are stories which never existed, but which were pushed online by agents working either directly or indirectly for Russia or, as in the case of the Typhoon Jebi story, by people close to the authorities in mainland China.

All were intended to stoke existing fears or racial hatred. And all had grave consequences.

The imaginary Lisa rape story prompted anti-Muslim demonstrations in Germany and even an outburst from the Russian foreign minister, who accused Germany of refusing to pursue the girl's alleged rapists simply because of "political correctness".

In Houston, anti-Muslim demonstrators stoked by Russian fake news were confronted by pro-Muslim demonstrators who were also galvanised by a separate Russian online campaign.

And in the case of the typhoon in Japan, Taiwan's local diplomat committed suicide last week because he could no longer bear the criticism heaped on him for something he did not do.

This is what the weaponisation of information means. Fake news can, quite literally, kill.

ONCE, IT WAS JUST PROPAGANDA

Governments have resorted to propaganda and deception in pursuit of their objectives for centuries; the Cold War was a heyday for such activities. Still, the current threat of deliberate online falsehoods is different for one key reason: technology.

Not long ago, the overwhelming majority of people got their news and entertainment from a restricted number of TV and radio stations, and a handful of newspapers and magazines. The quantity of information which an average person absorbed was, therefore, relatively limited and invariably "curated", in the sense that someone - usually an editor - filtered the information and shaped the way it was presented.

That did not necessarily guarantee accuracy or honesty, but guaranteed attribution: It was fairly easy to track the source of a news story and easy to disengage from it.

Now, however, one can run a virtual newspaper or broadcasting outlet from one's bedroom and enjoy almost total anonymity. The sheer quantity of sources of information is infinite; technology also allows a website constructed by a kid from, say, Russia's remote Siberia to look just as professional as that operated by The New York Times, for instance.

The result is that people are bombarded with information no previous generation of humans experienced and they react by spending less time analysing data coming their way, and reducing the amount of information they trust "to limited sources of information and simplified narratives that fit" their preconceived ideas, as American statistician Nate Silver argued in The Signal And The Noise, a pioneering study of the topic.

Instead of opening up people's horizons, information overload forces them into "echo chambers" where they listen only to sources which tend to reconfirm what they believe in. That means that it is easier for someone to identify such "information bubbles" and galvanise them.

If your followers on Twitter are people who believe that your country is about to be "taken over" by Islam, then you will get daily confirmation this is the case and you would be ready to believe any story which conforms to this narrative.

Too many events and "breaking news" also mean less attention to detail.

When looking for specific answers online, most people go to the first or second link offered by a search engine, often oblivious that the links were not chosen for their accuracy, but as a result of "algorithms" operated by search engines. They do not even bother to find out who supplied the information.

And almost nobody wonders whether the people who offer information ostensibly for free may have an ulterior motive. In short, people are ripe to be fooled and should not be surprised that they often are. Fake news is not so much the cause of the current problem, but its inevitable outcome.

PUTIN'S LONG-TERM STRATEGY

Today's Russian government proved adept at exploiting this domain because this fitted perfectly into its long-term strategy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's objective is to restore the country to its big-power glory, something that he cannot achieve through the outright use of force.

Yet by nipping at the cohesion of Western states, by undermining the unity of the US-led Nato alliance in Europe, Mr Putin stands a good chance of reaching his objective over time, and fake news fits this strategy perfectly.

Russia's information offensive also deflates claims that the Western political system is superior; Russian Internet involvement during the 2016 US presidential campaign did not necessarily put Mr Donald Trump in the White House, but it did expose the US electoral system to ridicule, as politicians had their stolen e-mail messages published and the most fantastic conspiracy theories started circulating, and that, for Russia, was the ultimate victory.

Its Internet campaign also plays to the country's evident strengths. While Moscow cannot keep up with US investment in new military technologies, Russia is more than a match when it comes to information technology.

Finally, the strategy is extremely cheap. The Russian-led fake news campaign mobilising people to demonstrate against the "Islamisation of Texas" is estimated to have cost Moscow all of US$100 (S$136). And the entire Russian operation to destabilise the US presidential election probably did not cost Mr Putin's treasury more than a few tens of millions of dollars, a fraction of the cost of one missile, but with a far bigger impact.

Other countries have different approaches. Until recently, China was more interested in exploiting Internet opportunities to gain intelligence and commercially useful information. It did not use fake accounts on social-media platforms in an aggressive way to undermine Western governments or institutions. Indeed, it poured resources into preventing Western-based Internet platforms from doing the same in China.

But this may be changing, as proliferation of deliberate falsehoods about Taiwan increases.

China's People Liberation Army over the past year used fake news to manipulate public opinion in Taiwan by heightening fears over Chinese military drills, the University of Oxford's Reuters Institute claimed in a study published in June this year.

Furthermore, as China's financial involvement in many countries around the world deepens, so does Beijing's stake in the domestic policies of these nations. From places as far apart as Sri Lanka or Zambia, evidence emerges of a more direct Chinese involvement in influencing domestic political debates through the use of online platforms.

And what began as a confrontation between big states and alliances is sure to spread to all other nations, as technology changes and more activities are conducted online. Military planners are by now certain that any future war will begin not with troops crossing the border, but with a massive propaganda campaign designed to overwhelm the decision-making capacity of an opponent, and shatter the cohesion and resilience of a nation.

As such, the fight against fake news is not only a matter of insulating the public from hate and violent speech. It is ultimately a question of national survival.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 30, 2018, with the headline 'Weaponisation of information and a matter of national survival'. Print Edition | Subscribe