Darkening web’s fake humans a threat to democracy


Danish troops will get training in how to deal with Russian misinformation before being sent to join a NATO military build-up in Estonia in January, Defense Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen said on Monday, Reuters reports:

In February, Lithuanian prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into a false report of a 15-year-old girl being raped by German NATO soldiers which spread quickly on social media. NATO accused Russia of being behind the false report and said it expected more propaganda of this sort in the future.

Both NATO and the European Union are concerned by Russia’s ability to use television and the internet to project what they say is deliberate misinformation. Russia has denied being involved in any cyber warfare targeting Western governments or institutions.

The Kremlin’s ‘active measures’ and influence operations come “straight from the Russian intelligence playbook’ and are designed “purposely to create a compromising situation with an eye towards soiling our electoral process,” one analyst tells The Cipher Brief.

Philip Howard, who runs the Computational Propaganda Research Project at Oxford, studied the deployment of propaganda bots during voting on Brexit, and the recent American and French presidential elections, notes Tim Wu, the author of “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads,” and a professor at Columbia Law School:

Twitter is particularly distorted by its millions of robot accounts; during the French election, it was principally Twitter robots who were trying to make #MacronLeaks into a scandal. Facebook has admitted it was essentially hacked during the American election in November. In Michigan, Mr. Howard notes, “junk news was shared just as widely as professional news in the days leading up to the election.”

Using robots to fake support, steal tickets or crash democracy really is the kind of evil that science fiction writers were warning about, Wu writes for The New York Times:

The use of robots takes advantage of the fact that political campaigns, elections and even open markets make humanistic assumptions, trusting that there is wisdom or at least legitimacy in crowds and value in public debate. But when support and opinion can be manufactured, bad or unpopular arguments can win not by logic but by a novel, dangerous form of force — the ultimate threat to every democracy.

The Web could turn from a boon to mankind into a tool for political and ideological control and domination, Stephen Budiansky notes in a Wall Street Journal review of ‘The Darkening Web’ by Alexander Klimburg. Part of the difficulty that Western governments face in responding to these challenges is that a number of very different kinds of threats are lumped together under the catchall terms “cyber attack” or “cyber war.” Broadly speaking, Mr. Klimburg explains, there are at least three types of cyber attacks, each quite distinct.

  • The attacks that most resemble true warfare are those that aim to achieve the results that were once the sole business of bombers or commando teams armed with “kinetic” weapons: taking out an air-defense system or destroying a strategic target such as a power station, dam or command post.
  • A second type of attack is the natural outgrowth of the NSA’s longstanding efforts to penetrate global communications. What in the old days was done by monitoring radio transmissions and codebreaking is today a game of penetrating computers and swiping information at the source—a skill at which the Chinese and Russians have proved as adept as the NSA.
  • And then there is the nebulous but burgeoning field of propaganda and information warfare, alarmingly on display during the 2016 election. An army of Russia-based human and automated attackers (“robo-trolls”) deluged the United States with pro-Trump disinformation, while Russian-government controlled or sponsored groups hacked the Democratic National Committee and other U.S. targets in search of potentially embarrassing or damaging information to influence the outcome.


“The Internet, a fabulous artifice of human civilization largely perceived today as a domain for advancing freedoms and prosperity,” he writes in the introduction to “The Darkening Web,” “could become instead a dark web of subjugation.” He foresees a not too distant future in which cyberspace is primarily “a domain of conflict . . . threatening the overall stability and security not only of the Internet but also of our very societies.”

A new study on The Shifting Landscape of Global Internet Censorship found evidence of some form of internet blocking in twenty six of the forty five countries that the study examined. Unsurprisingly, countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran exhibited the most extensive filtering practices whereas countries like Singapore, Hungary, and Lebanon engaged in limited filtering, the Council on Foreign Relations reports. Their study finds that:

  • The increased adoption of HTTPS, which encrypts connections to web servers, poses challenges to censors, which cannot only censor one offending page with HTTPS enabled, but must censor the entire website on which that page is hosted;
  • Content that governments would like to censor is increasingly moving to centralized platforms (e.g. Facebook) instead of individual websites, which can offer content more protection from certain censorship efforts like DDOS attacks but also make it more vulnerable to government pressure on the platforms;
  • There has been an increase in faith-based filtering at the internet service provider level in the Middle East, with evidence that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain block Shiite content where Iran blocks Sunni content; and
  • There is evidence that Malaysia, despite its government’s claims that it does not filter the internet, “filters pornography and gambling websites substantially” and has selectively blocked content related to Prime Minister’s Najib Razak’s alleged implication in a graft scheme.



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