Thursday, July 22, 2010

500 mio can't be wrong: Viral disinformation campaigns and the new World Leader

Eliza Manningham-Buller, director of Britian's domestic spy service MI5 between 2002 and 2007, made a statement of honesty and remorse this week: British and U.S. intelligence had no credible evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks in NYC before the 2003 Iraq invasion. You knew this already? Well good for you - you belong to the minority of people who don't believe the information their government and their media are feeding them. (And by the way: it doesn't matter if Intelligence had the evidence or not. It mattered that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld "had" it!)

Always interested in knowing more about the world and how to analyze it, I attended a seminar on geopolitics just last week. We discussed many topics related to geopolitics, including the question who is the current  "world leader" - according to a theory developed by George Modelski, it's, of course, the U.S.; they took over from Great Britain in 1945 - and who will be the next one. Will the U.S. go another round (rather not, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been the start of the end of the American empire), will it be China (despite all the talk of that: naaw, not really), or will it be "something" completely new, like a combination of mega cities such as Shanghai or Bangkok, or multinational corporations (Apple, Google, BP - oops), as someone suggested?

Here's my best bet on the matter: After the age of agriculture and the age of industry, we are now in the age of information. The most important good in today's world is information - and this fact is symbolized by the ubiquitous internet. He who dominates the information sphere will dominate the world. Will this lead to a democratization of the world leadership? With internet, with social media, no power can control the entire information sphere all the time. Or can they?

Just as agricultural products can be genetically modified and industrial goods can be simply copied, information can be easily manipulated. Psychological warfare and disinformation campaigns are an important part of any information sphere. Minds can be shaped, audiences can be influenced, addressing the cognitive and affective levels of target groups, in order to promote a certain policy or to impact the perceptions and the behaviour of the influenced. Disinformation doesn't mean to deprive the public of information - quite the contrary. Many pieces of information are given, many of them false, but some of them true, to increase the credibility of the sender.

Why are we given a lot of information bits on the alleged link between Saddam Hussein and Osama and none about Khaled Said, the Egyptian activist who was beaten to death by the police in June of 2010, or about the corrupted Oil for Food programme that was forced upon the Iraqi people in the 1990s? Over-information and omission are used to orient the information flow according to the objectives of a given (dis)-information strategy. There is no information given on one event while the public is bombarded with massive amounts of information on another event.

Where am I getting at? Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are powerful tools that attract an enormous mass of people. Facebook hit the 500 million mark of active users just yesterday. They have the ability to bring events and facts to light that had been suppressed otherwise. The world can now know about the brutal tactics of the Egyptian police, the world can now know that everyday poor men and women are executed in Iran - if they want to. But just as easy as true information (if ever there is such a thing as "truth") can be distributed and redistributed, wrong, manipulated information can be produced and spread. The technology is there and the manipulators know how to handle it.

The manipulators: They don't need to be a traditional power structure such as the United States. They can be a multinational, they can be one of the mega cities, they even could be a imposter human rights group. There is the case of one NGO that was set up in Geneva specifically for fighting against an oil company doing business in Sudan, accusing them of unethical business practics. After the company pulled out of Sudan, another company moved in and the NGO disappeared...

The most effective weapon of the manipulator is Facebook's LIKE button and Twitter's RETWEET button. In a split second, false (but well formulated) information can be approved by millions or can go innumerable times around the world, spreading like a virus. The tactic is not new, it is used in today's most trendy field in marketing. Viral marketing is a technique that uses social media networks (particularily YouTube) to produce marketing objectives through self-replicating viral processes, analogous to the spread of pathological viruses. You sneeze in real life, you hit the RT button in virtual life!

Don't drink and drive. Don't dream and retweet. You can participate in a disinformation campaign and not even know it. Only if we avoid to replicate the viruses of Israel's Mark Regev, Iran's Press TV, the Egyptian Information ministry, the Pentagon's Press office and Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer, we can become the leaders of the next world. If not, the manipulators will once again have won the war. They will fight for it.