Wednesday 19 September 2018

Proliferation of Weaponized Information: Threat To Democracy, National Security?

Food For Thought: ‘’Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral’’
-         Laws of Technology By Professor Melvin Kranzberg (1917-1995)

Introduction: Social media, big data and artificial intelligence (AI) can be likened to the 21st century arms race. These innovations have disrupted the way we communicate, predict patterns/the stock market, national security (electronic intelligence and cyber-defence), and democracy, amongst others. Evidence abound of States, rogue states, non-state actors or ‘’lone wolves’’ (cyber troops) weaponizing information or launching information warfare (IW), psychological warfare (PSYWAR) or psychological operations (PSYOPs), and in some cases, manipulating social media with a bid to influencing the outcome of an election.
A Freedom on the Net 2017 report titled, ''Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy'', established that voters in the most countries ever, 30 out of 65 surveyed faced social media distortion efforts. In October 2015, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö warned of the “information warfare” that was already affecting Finns, and said that it was the duty of every citizen to combat it. Finnish officials claim to have documented 20 disinformation campaigns against Finland that have come directly from the Kremlin (Russia). United States Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, who heads both NSA and Cyber Command, opined that, ''Foreign adversaries have stepped up the use of information warfare to control populations since 2011 and the operations are one of the new threats in the digital age''. It is widely speculated that influence operations by Russia in tandem with Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data boosted Trump’s prospect during the US presidential election.

What Is Weaponized Information?
A weaponized information (also referred to as weaponized narrative, cognitive hacking, or disinformation) is a message or content contrived to affect the recipient's perception of an event or someone in a manner that is not warranted thereby serving the strategic objective of the sender. We can liken social media disinformation to hybrid threats - the fusion of irregular and regular tools—everything from tweets to tanks—that both state and non-state actors, like terrorist groups, are using to try to destabilize countries and institutions. Weaponized information could be a blend of truth, a faux pas, deliberate falsehoods (or fake news) aimed at spreading fear, paranoia, uncertainty and distrust about a product, an individual or even a country. Information Weaponization is similar to what is referred to in military circles as ‘’Information operations’’ - the collection of tactical information about an adversary as well as the dissemination of propaganda in pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent, or as ‘’Sharp power’’ - the use of manipulative diplomatic policies or information warfare by one country to influence and undermine the political system of a target country. More often than not, weaponized information are astroturfed – disseminated in a way that masks the sponsors of the message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) and they are made to appear as though the message originates from and is supported by grassroots contributors. 

A weaponized narrative can be genuine but taken out of context. An example is a remark intentionally selected from a longer statement and tweaked in such a way that it waters down or magnifies what the speaker said or meant. Just about anything – a trending topic, information or hashtag on social media can be weaponized. For instance, sequel to President Trump’s purported #lifeless comment about the Nigerian president, it appears ‘’lifeless’’ is now a popular lexicon on many online forums, social media platforms and the Nigerian public space. Another example is the #LazyNigerianYouth comment and hashtag which trended on Twitter for quite some time.

Weaponized Information, A Proliferating Global Phenomenon
From the United States to the United Kingdom, Sweden to Germany, weaponized information of disinformation is a proliferating global phenomenon. The Atlantic reports that ''disinformation is spreading on WhatsApp in India—and it’s getting dangerous''. The British embassy in Moscow recently accused Russia of spreading "disinformation" after London charged two supposed G.U. or GRU (Russian military intelligence) operatives traveling under the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov as the chief suspects in the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK. In its piece titled - ''Disinformation Wars'', Foreign Policy says,   ''Russian disinformation has become a problem for European governments. In the last two years, Kremlin-backed campaigns have spread false stories alleging that French President Emmanuel Macron was backed by the “gay lobby,” fabricated a story of a Russian-German girl raped by Arab migrants, and spread a litany of conspiracy theories about the Catalan independence referendum, among other efforts.
The University of Oxford-based Computational Propaganda Project researched myriads of ways in which big data, bots and computational propaganda are employed in disinformation and manipulating public opinion over major social networking platforms. The research established that cyber troops are a pervasive and global phenomenon. The report asserts that, ''Many different countries employ significant numbers of people and resources to manage and manipulate public opinion online, sometimes targeting domestic audiences and sometimes targeting foreign publics''. Mr. Sean Gourley, an Artificial Intelligence(AI) consultant to the United States intelligence agencies warns that fake news may have already influenced politics in the US, but ‘’its going to get a lot worse’’. He argues that the next generation of fake news would be far more sophisticated thanks to AI. Another report says AI will soon be able to mimic any human voice leading to a ‘’complete destruction of trust in anything you see or hear’’.

Government-Sponsored Disinformation, Computational Propaganda
Scholars argue that nearly 50 million accounts on Twitter are actually automatically run by computer bots – a software application programmed to run automated tasks such as interacting with and mimicking human users.
Israel is said to have more than 350 official government social media accounts, covering the full range of online platforms, from Twitter to Instagram, and operating in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Ukraine’s iArmy, also known as “the army of truth”, operates a website where citizens and volunteers can access and share “truthful” information on social media (Benedictus, 2016).

Azerbaijan’s pro-government trolls have become a textbook case of state-level social media manipulation. The United State through the USAid secretly created ZunZuneo otherwise known as 'Cuban Twitter' to stir unrest and undermine the Cuban government.

Chinese Trolls (50-centers), pro-government netizens reportedly dispense an estimated 450 million fake social media comments in a year aimed at distracting the public from government policy-related issues that threaten to anger citizens enough to turn them out onto the streets.

There is also the notorious Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll factory which specializes in churning out fake news and propaganda on the internet and social media platforms.
Government supporters in Iran created websites to mimic the BBC's Persian service, but instead "filled them with conspiracy theories and anti-Western propaganda." Also in Iran, hackers created mock websites of Syrian opposition leaders in "social-engineering schemes." A recent BBC investigation found that online trolls and fake accounts poisons Arab social media, particularly in the year-long propaganda war between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours.

Philippine's controversial President Rodrigo Duterte's inadvertently admitted that he used keyboard troll army to manipulate social media during 2016 campaign.  "In Mexico, an estimated 75,000 automated accounts known colloquially as Peñabots have been employed to overwhelm political opposition on Twitter." "When a new hashtag emerges to raise awareness about a protest or corruption scandal, government backers employ two methods to game the system in favor of President Enrique Peña Nieto." 

In South Korea, an investigation found that state-sponsored disinformation operation during the country’s 2012 presidential election by the National Intelligence Service generated more than 1.2 million Twitter messages which supported now-impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye and while denigrating her rival in the election.

Oxford University researchers say one-in-three news articles shared online about the recent Swedish election involves widespread online disinformation or “junk news”. Using machine learning, the Swedish Defense Research Agency established prior to the September election that ‘’Twitter bots proliferated ahead of Sweden’s election. The report says the suspected Twitter bots were 40 percent more likely to support the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats (SD) than human users’’. On September 9, 2018, Swedes went to the poll to elect members of its Parliament - Riksdag who will in turn elect the Prime Minister. As predicted, anti-immigrant party, Sweden Democrats (SD) made sizeable gains. Their share of the vote jumped from 12.9% to 17.6, so far at the expense of the two main parties in the country's General Election.

How Disinformation, Impacts Democracy, National Security
Weaponized information wields the unparalleled capacity to destabilize a target country’s peace, stability, democracy and national security even without firing a single shot. This is tantamount to Chinese military strategist and philosopher, Sun Tzu's concept of subduing the enemy without fighting. Data analytics and social media manipulation has become an essential component of electioneering worldwide. This new normal has morphed into a “guns for hire” professional service, as Professor Andrew Chadwick, Co-Director, New Political Communication Unit at Royal Holloway described it. UK parliament's digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) committee believes that democracy is at risk unless the government and regulators take urgent action to combat a growing crisis of data manipulation, disinformation and so-called fake news. 
The likes of Cambridge Analytica which sought to influence the Nigerian presidential election in 2015 and AKPD Message and Media, A PR group founded by former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod, which worked for the then opposition, comes to mind. 
This is why these days; savvy politicians assemble and bankrolls retinue (social) media teams - cyber warriors, spin doctors and praise-singers who render disinformation as a service (DaaS). Since 2010 political parties and governments have reportedly spent more than half a billion dollars on social-­media manipulation. Such subtle battle for hearts and minds can catapult an 'unlikely' candidate to power.
Writing on the activities of the Buhari Media Centre (BMC) which was recently rebranded as Buhari New Media Centre (BNMC), a Nigerian journalist, author, blogger and US-based professor, Dr. Farooq Kperogi, refers to the Buhari government is ''an absolute propagandocracy, that is, a government conducted by intentionally false and manipulative information''. I think there’s also an Atiku Media Centre or something like that. You would see a lot of these trolls, hirelings and ‘paid commenter’s’ on Nigeria’s popular online forum – and other social media platforms. Just recently, Demola Olarewaju, a political strategist and PDP member raised an alarm in a series of tweets about sinister plans by the BNMC to use bots and online trolls to attack his person.  Demola advised handlers of the BNMC to rein in the bots else he would expose "minutes of meetings, letters requesting money, phone numbers, addresses, bank details, planned propaganda etc".
Countering Weaponized Information, Fake News 2.0
Preparatory to the 2018 midterm elections in the US, social media companies scrambled to reassure the United States government that their platforms would not be abused by vested interests. Pursuant to what can be deemed ‘antidisinformation as a service’ (AdaaS) provided by an enterprise cybersecurity company - FireEye, Facebook declared on August 21, 2018 that it took down 652 fake accounts. Twitter foiled and removed political influence social media campaigns allegedly originating from Russia. Similarly, Microsoft dismantled six phishing domains linked to Russian election hackers. Google reportedly took down 39 YouTube channels linked to Iranian influence campaign. Given the growing threat of weaponized information to national security, the British Army announced the creation of a new unit for psychological and social media warfare to help Britain “fight in the information age” and control the “narrative” of warfare. The United Kingdom recently set up a ''dedicated national security unit to tackle fake news and disinformation''. The equivalent in the United States is the ''Global Engagement Center (GEC)'', which is ''charged with leading the U.S. government’s efforts to counter propaganda and disinformation from international terrorist organizations and foreign countries''. Similar bodies established to counter weaponized information and hybrid threats include: the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (CoE) which was set up in Finland, aftermath of an agreement between eight European countries, the US, and NATO; EU’s East StratCom Task Force, NATO’s StratCom Center of Excellence, amongst others.

Egyptian President, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi recently ratified a law that seeks to monitor social media users in Egypt. This legislation empowers Egypt's Supreme Council for Media Regulations the power to place people with more than 5,000 followers — on social media or with a personal blog or website — under supervision - and to suspend or block any personal account which "publishes or broadcasts fake news or anything [information] inciting violating the law, violence or hatred." Those who administer or visit such websites, intentionally or "in error without a valid reason," can now face jail time and fines. Not to be outdone, the Nigerian military says it now monitors social media for anti-government and anti-military information. The Nigerian Army upped the ante by launching its CyberwarfareCommand aimed at combating terrorism, fake news. Recall that Nigeria's Minister of information and culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed had since set up a ''National Campaign Against Fake News”.

Hacking Critical Election Infrastructure
Apart from weaponizing information and using social to hack hearts and minds, hacking critical election infrastructure is also doable. In 2016, hackers breached databases for election systems in Illinois and Arizona, in the United States. This explains why as part of proactive election security measure, 36 states in the US have deployed Albert Sensors, a cybersecurity detection system that could detect hacking attempts and send alerts to federal and state government agencies. If the United States which parades some of the best cybersecurity brasses and professionals, struggles to ward of cyber-attacks, one wonders the fate of Nigeria where fire-brigade approach is a state policy. Interestingly, I read the Director General of Nigeria's National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Dr. Isa Pantami recently saying that the 2019 general elections may be disrupted if adequate information technology security measures were not put in place. Dr. Pantami raised the alarm at the 10th annual conference organised by Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA), Abuja Chapter. He was quoted as saying, ‘’terrorists may disrupt the national elections by hacking into the voter registration database of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)’’. Perhaps Nigeria should consider the aforesaid ‘’Sensors’’. We are also are of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) saying it will transmit the results of the results of the 2019 general elections from the 119,973 polling units nationwide electronically and in real time through the Nigerian Communications Satellites Limited (NIGCOMSAT’s) satellite. May I remind the INEC and Nigeria’s national security agencies that commercial satellites can be hijacked, or hacked. The Hackers News reports about an incident where a group of Russian hackers, most notably the Turla APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) reportedly hijacked a commercial satellite.

As the defining 2019 general election approaches, Nigeria must ramp up cyber-defence capability and cybersecurity standards to counter weaponized information, disinformation and influence operations on our democratic process by domestic and foreign vested interests. It is imperative that the National Assembly expedites passage of a robust data protection framework and privacy laws in Nigeria with a view to protecting citizen’s data from data breaches. The European Union GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is a classic template.

Written By:

© Don Okereke, security consultant/analyst, technology aficionado, researcher, writer, active citizen, good governance advocate.

September 14, 2018
Twitter: @DonOkereke

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