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How disinformation and data-driven propaganda is making citizens vulnerable


The arrival of the internet allowed users from all over the world to think beyond their geographical borders. Together they organically grew a new global community that seamlessly collaborated. Here in 2020, new start-ups are being launched on 100% remote teams with colleagues scattered all over the world that never meet physically. 

Forward-thinking businesses are no longer restricting their search for talent to their location as telecommuting becomes the norm. Despite this progress, there is a much darker side to our new online world that is affecting global citizens.

The same technology that offers a myriad of ways to express ourselves online is also used by marketers to target us with tailored campaigns. Ironically, if you dare to look behind the curtain, you will discover that the more we share online, the less power we actually have. Our digital utopia is increasingly serving up a daily narrative that is served on our newsfeed of choice.

Welcome to a world where troll farms and bots are the new weapons of choice to change the political landscape and crush dissent. Behind the sponsored content on our newsfeeds is a revolution in propaganda. Welcome to the disinformation age built on deep fakes, dark ads, and fake news to make it difficult to understand what is real and what is not.

The arrival of more information should enable everyone to see the world beyond their own world view. Only by challenging our belief system can we grow as individuals. But disinformation makes it harder than ever to make sense of life in the twenty-first century.

How disinformation campaigns rule the political landscape

The kind of language we use online combined with our likes, shares, and results of those Facebook quizzes are enabling data brokers to build up a unique profile about every user. This treasure trove of information is then sold to advertisers and spin doctors who can create personalized campaigns to manipulate your thinking and how you might choose to vote.

Data reveals the hopes and fears of voters that feel neglected by the political system. Herschensohn once wrote that "repetition is the oldest and most effective propaganda technique." Maybe this is why we are increasingly finding it hard to escape the ubiquitous three-word slogans repeated continuously on every news report such as, "Get Brexit done," or "Build the wall."

Researchers at Harvard stated that the Chinese government posts 448 million social media comments aimed not to engage but to distract users. Elsewhere, a report by researchers at Oxford University reveals that 70 countries have experienced organized social media manipulation campaigns that spread disinformation to distract and confuse voters. 

The common ground where reasoned debate takes place is being removed and replaced with binary thinking where people only see the world as extreme left or extreme right and nothing in between. But this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and disinformation goes far beyond influencing election outcomes in a new world disorder.

How disinformation affects regular citizens

The uncomfortable truth is that nobody is immune to the vulnerabilities of disinformation and data-driven propaganda. But governments around the world are joining forces to raise awareness and prevent the spreading of misinformation.

It can be challenging for consumers to separate fact from fiction when shopping online. In a quest for truth, many will search for an authentic voice online before making a purchase. 89% of consumers now trust reviews as much as online recommendations. But there is misinformation hidden in those reviews too.

Astroturfing is a term that was initially used to describe the armies of people online writing fake positive reviews for products online or the boosting of engagement in online communities to make them appear bigger than they were. But astroturfing has evolved into automated campaigns that provide the illusion that a person or policy has considerable support online.

When the Australian bushfires raged, climate change deniers quickly unleashed bots across social media promoting the hashtag #arsonemergency. The disturbingly effective disinformation campaign attempted to change the narrative by pointing the finger of blame at arson, rather than climate change. But this was the first time that journalists and the global community woke up the fact that disinformation could not only affect regular citizens but the future of our planet too. 

How cybercriminals use disinformation campaigns to trick users

The genie is out of the bottle. Disinformation is no longer just the weapon of choice for nation-states. Disinformation as a service is already readily available on the dark web that can create negative campaigns designed to ruin the reputation of commercial competitors or even individuals with malicious content.

Traditionally, cybersecurity experts focus their efforts on identifying vulnerabilities and weaknesses on networks, applications, and systems. But sophisticated cybercriminals are also targeting non-technical weaknesses too. 

Cybercriminals can use data to uncover vulnerabilities, weaknesses, or biases that can be exploited to influence behaviour through a disinformation campaign. As users, it can be hard not to judge or have knee-jerk reactions to revelations about a company or individual online. But maybe we should think twice before we hit that share button and ask ourselves if we are being played?

How to protect yourself from disinformation

The current outbreak of the Coronaviruses highlights how misinformation can spread unnecessary fear and panic. Whenever we look, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate a real news article from something designed to manipulate your thought process. Maybe it's time to take a step back from social media and think critically about every article you read. Where did the story originate? What is the original source?

Rather than blindly accepting everything we read as the truth, it's time to question everything. When you are endlessly scrolling down an infinite timeline surrounded by photos of your friends, colleagues, and family, remind yourself that you are actually inside an echo chamber. 

Social media platforms are designed to keep you scrolling and ensure that you never leave. It will keep spoon-feeding information that fits in with your world view and strengthening your opinions. But what you should be doing is questioning everything you read, view, and hear. Seek alternative viewpoints and media that might challenge your thinking.

For the most part, users can now spot phishing emails that attempt to use emotional triggers to get them to react quickly without thinking and click on an infected link. The global community now needs to unite and use this same awareness when faced with a targeted news article designed to make them outraged and hit the share button. 

It's time to break out of the echo chambers that reinforce your own biases by repeating your views and feeding them back to you. Insulating yourself from opposing views could foolishly make you believe that you are always right.

Engaging with people who think differently to you will help you embrace the value that comes with a diversity of thought. Retiring the tribal thinking that spreads misconceptions around the world will help the global community once again break down the barriers put up with those that want to control them. 

Together, we can prove the technology works best when it brings people together. But as Patti Smith once sang, people have the power.

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