Duh! That’s what we say when something should be obvious. It turns out, information warfare is at the heart of cybersecurity. But the cybersecurity community and I missed it. This Computer Weekly article from Dec. 23, 2020 brought it into focus. And the US Capitol fiasco on Jan. 6, 2021 vaulted information warfare to the top of the priority list. We need a solution and root cause analysis. Fast.
An information warfare attack targets groups of people with bad information to influence decisions favorable to the attacker. Think social engineering on steroids. It’s more powerful than the most powerful nuclear bomb and as old as history. Defending against information warfare means persuading victims that attackers are lying. This is never easy.
For Christians, information warfare goes all the way back to when the devil fooled Eve into taking a bite from a forbidden apple. Eve persuaded Adam to try a bite, and that altered human history. In the 1920s, Hitler used information warfare to rise to power by exploiting German anger after WWI. In WWII, the Americans and allies launched an information warfare campaign using inflatable vehicles and a ghost army to fool the Germans. In the 21st century, radical Islamic terrorist groups used social media to indoctrinate vulnerable people. And most recently, Donald Trump and others exploited American anger, social media algorithmic weaknesses, and hungry sensational news outlets to operate information warfare campaigns on an unprecedented scale.
On Nov. 20, 2011, 60 Minutes ran an interview with Grover Norquist, founder of a group named Americans for Tax Reform, ATR. ATR donated money and marketing expertise to Republican candidates who signed a pledge to never support raising taxes. Republican candidates who refused found themselves starved for campaign resources and out of office.
Americans don’t like behind-the-scenes kingmakers pulling strings. And so, just like Hitler exploited German anger after WWI, Donald Trump exploited American anger about perceptions of elitism, political correctness run amok, weak leadership, Middle-East terrorists operating with impunity, long-term standard of living declines, corruption, government intrusion into daily life, and a sense of hopelessness. Trump promised to drain the swamp and marketed himself as a populist. He won the 2016 Republican nomination and beat Hilary Clinton in the 2016 election.
The infamous Access Hollywood hot mic video appeared late in the 2016 election cycle. In that 2005 video, Trump claimed he could get away with anything because he was a celebrity. He tested that during his term in office and found he was right. Through scandal after scandal, Trump supporters stuck with him like diehard sports fans while Trump blanketed his 88 million Twitter followers and friendly media outlets with messaging.
The personality cult, nurtured by QAnon, Twitter, Fox News, and alternate right wing media outlets, took root.
Russia, Pizzagate, and QAnon
Although Trump won the electoral college in 2016, he claimed the election was rigged because Clinton won more popular votes. Vice President Pence chaired a committee to look into 2016 election irregularities and found nothing of substance. But Trump supporters paid more attention to Trump tweets and ignored the Pence committee findings.
American intelligence agencies believe Russia interfered with the 2016 elections by using fake social media profiles to create turmoil. Social media companies responded by cracking down on fake profiles. Trump denied Russian interference and tweeted his messages day and night to millions of followers.
During the 2016 election season, a false rumor flew around the internet that Hilary Clinton and other Democrats operated a child sex ring from the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in Washington, DC. Alex Jones gave it prominence on his internet platform, Infowars. Jack Posobiec livestreamed a children’s birthday party, telling his viewers he was exposing evil. The publicity incited Edgar Welch to drive from North Carolina to Washington DC and enter the pizzeria with guns drawn to rescue nonexistent child sex slaves from nonexistent masters. Welch surrendered to police when he realized he was on a fool’s errand. This Washington Post Pizzagate article chronicles the story in detail. In case the link goes bad, here is a PDF.
Alex Jones eventually apologized. But Infowars still continues. On Jan. 18, 2021, Infowars ran a story with headline, “Elite Plan Satanic Ritual for Joe Biden Inauguration as Democrats Commit Open Insurrection.” Jack Posobiec went on to become a top reporter for One America News Network, OANN.
Pizzagate should have alarmed the public about viral lies flying around the internet. But Pizzagate was just a preview.
A few months later, in 2017, the mysterious Q started posting dire warnings in obscure internet forums. The narrative is classic American conspiracy theory mixed with bastardized predictions derived from Christian prophesy. A small group of powerful people who control all major media outlets are secretly plotting to take over the world. This group commits unspeakable acts against children, and only Donald Trump stands in their way. A huge battle is coming where the forces of good, led by Trump, will defeat the deep state forces of evil. Nothing can stop it. Stick to the plan.
A small army of conspiracy theorists and hucksters spread the anonymous Q message to Reddit, Youtube, and other platforms. Within a few months, millions of Americans converted to QAnon true believers.
COVID Conspiracy Theories
The COVID-19 pandemic brought conspiracy theories into the mainstream. Millions of people still embrace them.
- COVID-19 was a Chinese genetic engineering experiment gone bad.
- Deep state people with the FDA and other government agencies engineered COVID-19 to make money from a cure.
- Hydroxychloroquine is a cure, but deep state people who control patents on competing drugs block it.
- COVID-19 is part of an evil plot by Bill Gates, George Soros, and the deep state to take over the world.
- 5G cell phone technology causes COVID-19.
- COVID-19 vaccines have nanobots so the government can control our minds.
- Masks and social distancing are excuses for the deep state to control our lives.
Millions believed the Judy Mikovits Plandemic video, rocketing her book to the Amazon best seller list. Millions more viewed videos with Stella Immanuel, where she claimed hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19. President Trump retweeted her tweets in a PR battle with his own Coronavirus Task Force.
2020 Election Conspiracy Theories
Meanwhile, leading up to the 2020 election, President Trump used his Twitter platform and friendly media outlets to tell the public over and over that absentee ballots would invalidate the upcoming election. In tweet after tweet, media story after media story, rally after rally, he presented his case. Millions of Americans listened. And believed.
After Trump lost the election, he doubled-down on rigged election claims.
- In the middle of the night, deep state election officials fed fake ballots into voting machines to taint vote counts.
- Venezuelans tainted American voting machines.
- A German company tainted American voting machines.
- An Italian defense contractor used a supercomputer and satellites to taint American voting machines.
- Deep state American election officials conspired with the Chinese and Venezuelans to taint voting machines.
- Deep state election officials kicked Republican poll watchers out of the vote counting centers.
- US Postal Service employees backdated late Biden ballots and destroyed Trump ballots.
- The Chinese bribed election officials to look the other way.
- Somebody flew in fake paper ballots from Mexico.
- Somebody flew fake paper ballots into Pennsylvania from New York.
- Crooks in Spain, Mexico, and Germany counted ballots.
- Dead people voted.
- Live people voted for Biden more than once.
- And more.
Trump bombarded Twitter with election fraud claims. Fox News, OANN, the Epoch Times, and others inundated the public with Trump fraud claims mixed with QAnon and COVID conspiracy messages. It was information warfare over the internet on an unprecedented scale.
None of the election fraud allegations stood up to scrutiny, but tidal waves of lies to QAnon devotees and millions of Trump supporters drowned the truth. Here is one of many social media exchanges.
After Twitter removed several accounts for violating its terms of service, QAnon believers and others flocked to Twitter competitor, Parler. Everyone who debunked a Trump conspiracy theory was a deep state sympathizer. Courts across the country ruled against dozens of Trump lawsuits. But every judge who ruled against Trump was either a Communist, or a traitor in cahoots with the Chinese, or just gutless.
Insurrection and Aftermath
And then on Jan. 6, 2021, a Trump-inspired mob overran unprepared Capitol police to stop a joint session of Congress from counting the electoral votes. Thousands were there. Millions cheered them on.
Six people died from the insanity that day. Law enforcement arrested hundreds people in the days following the attack. Social media companies responded. Twitter and Facebook banned Trump. Youtube suspended Trump’s account for at least a week. Amazon AWS and other Parler suppliers pulled their services, which shut Parler down.
In the days leading to the Jan. 20, 2021 Biden Inauguration, QAnon believers and other right wing groups threaten armed protests in all fifty states. Washington, DC looks like a war zone, with military checkpoints everywhere and barbed-wire fences protecting the inauguration stage. Fear is in the air.
All from viral lies, amplified and echoed across the internet.
Cybersecurity and Information Warfare
Academic studies show that lies tend to fly farther and faster than truth. The studies are easy to find. Here is a study from MIT. Here is another study published in Scientific American. I lived it first-hand in 2019. The whole world saw it with Pizzagate, QAnon, COVID-19, and the 2020 election. And we all watched the consequences when that mob attacked the US Capitol.
The classic definition of cybersecurity is ensuring the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of data. When somebody poisons social media and public information sources with lies, they poison the data the public needs to make good decisions. The cybersecurity community needs to respond.
After social media companies took action, Trump supporters complained about big tech liberal bias and censorship. Social media companies respond that Trump violated their terms of service. Social media companies are private businesses and must answer to shareholders and paying customers. They have no obligation to carry content that paying customers and shareholders deem objectionable.
And that sets up a dilemma. Should social media companies be neutral carriers like telecom companies, or should they take a more active role to fight disinformation? And if they take an active role, how do they do it fairly? Who arbitrates truth?
Censorship was a knee-jerk reaction and caused a predictable uproar. But with algorithms that amplify widely shared content, and business models built on maximizing emotional engagement, social media companies had no other tools to use. This must change.
Lies spread faster than truth because it’s easy to lie and hard to respond with truth. Before anyone can respond to a viral lie, millions of people have already seen it and repeated it. But the algorithms don’t amplify the response, and so only a few people see responses. And after lies travel around the world over and over, they accumulate an audience of diehard fans and truth never has a chance to break through. We’ve all seen the social consequences. Business consequences will also be bad when politicians start making business decisions instead of business operators.
If social media companies keep censoring controversial content on an ad-hoc basis, then sooner or later, they will alienate significant portions of their audience and die. Instead of knee-jerk censoring, what if social media companies adopt circuit breakers, similar to stock market circuit breakers? The idea is, when sharing about an event or idea exceeds a certain threshold, temporarily slow the sharing to give responses time to catch up.
Combined with circuit-breakers, what if social media companies fight lies by also amplifying opposing points of view? One pillar of free speech is, let the public choose from a free marketplace of ideas. But social media algorithms bias that marketplace in favor of lies. How about tuning the algorithms to give the same weight to opposing viewpoints?
After the 2016 election trolling, social media companies learned to spot fake accounts and remove them. After the 2020 election, social media companies must adjust again.
The cybersecurity community also needs to step up. We need to educate the public about social media companies’ business models and how lies travel faster than truth. Perhaps social media companies can partner with the cybersecurity community to teach how to consume digital media responsibly.
But no matter what policies or technology social media companies put in place, personal responsibility is still the last and best tool to combat viral lies. People must learn to think before sharing. Explore opposite points of view, dig for facts, sleep on it before sharing, and make wise decisions.
I hope a whole bunch of my fellow Republicans who still scream the 2020 election was rigged start practicing personal responsibility before more people throw their lives away for a lie. Two plus two is still four, no matter how many celebrities with millions of Twitter followers say differently.