Full disclosure up front, the only real person in those images is Mr Farage. The rest are AI generated faces of the type used to spread fake news. Leaving the obvious jokes about which is more effective at propagating it aside let's consider what fake news means for democracy.
Our relationship with truth and the line between reality and falsehood is increasingly fragile. Yesterday Channel 4 revealed how Brexit campaign group Leave.EU faked footage of migrants who, satellite data showed, had never left UK waters. Channel 4 also announced Arron Banks’ pro-Brexit group appears to have staged photos of migrants attacking women in London.
The happy days of kittens and hot dog legs are still with us, but social media networks are being subverted by the controllers of fake news to influence you and co-opt you to spread their propaganda.
It’s the biggest issue facing our democracies. The electoral system’s vulnerability is a worry for everyone, irrespective of partisan politics. It is one of society’s most fundamental rights to choose our own leaders. It especially concerns the UK where two-thirds of Britons(1) are active on social media, and 15% use them to talk about which political party they would vote for(2).
It seems inescapable that the future of politics lies in using social networks and memes to weaponise issues. However, our governments seem as ill-equipped as us to understand the new reality of information warfare. Instead, our government are adopting the same tactics to influence us. In doing so, have they compromised their ability to police this area? Without them how will we discern state or politically sponsored disinformation and propaganda now and in the future?
“Alarmism can be good — you should be alarmist about this stuff… We are so screwed it’s beyond what most of us can imagine. We were utterly screwed a year and a half ago, and we’re even more screwed now. And depending on how far you look into the future it just gets worse.” — Aviv Ovadya, Chief Technologist for the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility.
With great difficulty. Memetic warfare favours insurgencies because they weaken monopolies on narrative and empower challenges to centralised authority. It sounds seductive; most of us are rebels or rationalists and see the positive aspect of listening to more voices. But what if those voices don’t have societies best interests at heart? What if those voices actively wish to harm the populations, they are being distributed into?
Military, private interests and intelligence agencies around the world are already waging information wars. Both Brexit and Trump’s campaign have come under scrutiny for reportedly contracting UK-based firm Cambridge Analytica to mine Facebook data and influence voter behaviour. Academics working on behalf of UK lawmakers(3) believe that Cambridge Analytica’s work on Brexit won the day for them. But is that democracy?
This threat will intensify as artificial intelligence tools become more widely available. Within a year, it will be straightforward to create high-quality digital deceptions whose authenticity we cannot easily verify.
Take a look at this.
This technology will be in the shops in 12 months and this is only the beginning.
Fear, uncertainty, and doubt (pleasingly FUD) will be actively spread online. FUD information will be hyper-targeted at the specific internet users that are likely to propagate it.
The tactics will likely cluster into these groups.
Reputational manipulation: Using digital deception to incite unfounded reactions in an adversary; and de-legitimise an adversary’s leaders and influencers.
- Reputational manipulation: Using digital deception to incite unfounded reactions in an adversary; and de-legitimise an adversary’s leaders and influencers.
- Laser phishing: using AI to target people with memetics which mimic trustworthy entities to persuade targets to act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.
- Computational propaganda: the exploitation of social media, human psychology, rumour, gossip, and algorithms to manipulate public opinion.
There is no Geneva Convention on digital information attacks or military doctrine on how to be proportional in retaliation. Despite their tremendous resources both Facebook and Twitter face an impossible task in identifying and removing fake accounts. It very much looks like shillbots - sock puppets, meat puppets, bots whatever we call them - are going to become more prevalent and embedded in our social discourse.
Combatting memetic warfare is going to be difficult. Mainstream education about its existence is the first step, exposure, undermining through counter memetics and tracing and tracking all have role.
Pulitzer Prize Finalist Carole Cadwalladr has a call to action: “Democracy is not guaranteed, and it is not inevitable. And we have to fight. And we have to win. And we cannot let these tech companies have this unchecked power. It’s up to us: you, me and all of us. We are the ones who have to take back control.”
Most of all we must remember, “Truth is a virus” too.
Do two things now. Make sure you are registered to vote and sign up to RemainVoter.com
- Source: We Are Social.
- Ipsos; Institute of Development Studies; Demos; Innovate UK; August 7, 2015, to August 13, 2015; 1,250 respondents; 16-75 years.