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When weaponized information goes global

By Kiril Avramov and Srimal Fernando

As the echo of the massive Cambridge Analytica or Facebook scandal that shook Britain and the US slowly subsides, the realization that not only controversial data privacy issues are at stake slowly sinks in. Indeed, the global media has heavily focused on the breach of massive amounts of personal data that was obtained by the Cambridge Analytica’s associates and rightly so, as the alleged conduct raises some serious concerns regarding  consumer privacy protection.

However, there is another larger ethical concern on the background that certainly will outlast the specifics of the scandal at hand and one that poses open challenges for the democratic discourse around the globe. Namely, the “privatization” and global distribution of instrumentation that is closely related to the methods employed in psychological warfare a field once strictly reserved for inter-state measures that were tightly commanded and controlled by respective national governments when operating against hostile targets.

What the specific details of the Cambridge Analytica scandal reveal is the magnitude of the actual interest of private parties and non-state actors in the employment of the psychological operations techniques and the search for utility of the advances of behavioral sciences and their insights into manipulation to be employed in inter-state politics on a global scale. Of course, the use of big  data analysis, audience micro targeting and behavioral techniques associated with perception management and manipulation are definitely nothing new and have been used repeatedly in the past, however the novelty here is the very proliferation of behavioral management companies that focus on electoral outcomes and their drive to exploit the potentials of the psy-ops techniques married with advance data science around the globe. Surely, the opponents of this claim will point out that the now defunct Cambridge Analytica and its similar counterparts are absolutely no different than the old-school political consultancies and lobby groups that are hired to ensure desired electoral outcomes for their patrons. Other might add that there is no proof that the techniques , such as the psychographic advertised and employed by Cambridge Analytica’s staff never actually worked or were never used in campaigns, such as Brexit or the American presidential election in 2016. However, the main difference we would like to point out is the extent to which similar behavioral management companies are immersed into turning themselves from “old-school” political consultants into data-driven psy-warriors of the modern age.

Apart from the ethical issue pertaining to the methods of mass manipulation based on the attempted fine description of the individual psychological traits of future voters that included individual selective targeting based on their fears and hopes the bigger concern remains the use of fine-tuned “weaponized” strategic messaging coupled with exploitation of negative narratives just like in the case of the  Nigerian  presidential election in 2015 . The anti-Buhari  campaign  video that featured detailed graphic violence suggesting that if Buhari wins sharia law will be imposed and deal will be struck with Boko Haram, meanwhile all who speak against the regime will be punished and women will be veiled is a primer in distribution of weaponized information seeking to affect what the 2011 Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes[1], as “System-1 mode of thinking, the one associated with speed, emotions and unconsciousness. It also serves as a clear illustration of the battle for cognitive framing – the context in which the choices are presented to the targeted groups that are expected to react. Add to this the various other messaging tactics for voter suppression and turnout that result in say anti-election rallies and you will gain a clearer picture of the potency and power of precision-targeted weaponized information.”

Another reference point for its potency, reach and effect obviously could be found in Kremlin’s  disinformation  war against the collective West where fake news, rumors, conspiracy theories and weaponizing narratives are directed at specific groups aiming to polarize, confuse, divide and undermine institutional trust in their respective home countries. It is also interesting to point out that the spread and effect of such weaponized information builds on the effects of what Cas Sunstein refers[2] to as polarization and informational, conformity and social cascades, where the group polarization is the process where like-minded groups of people when communicating with each other regarding an issue or controversy end up holding more extreme positions then previously held after they talk to each other, whereas informational cascades are built on the “avalanche effect” of information spread, where if critical group of people accept disinformation to be true, then the rest will follow, unless having a very good reason not to trust it. Similar is the mechanics of conformity cascades where people indulge in believing disinformation simply because other people do the same. In general, weaponized information poses danger, as it profits from people’s  cognitive  biases or to put it simply – it thrives on the errors of human decision-making and deviators from norms of rationality in judgements. As election campaigns come and go soon to be forgotten, the effects of polarization, atomization and social confrontation remain long after the polling stations close their doors.

That is one of the more troubling real long-term effects amplified by the use of psy-ops techniques that add to the cumulative effect of the rapidly disintegrating public discourse analyzed by authors, such as the techno-sociologist Zeyneb Turfekri.  It is surely obvious that the big data and artificial intelligence (AI) revolution are on a victorious global march and add great power to the application of behavioral science tools, as it is surely obvious that there is a global interest and demand in applying them in local politics. This demand is well reflected in the length of the former Cambridge Analytica’s  political  client list that ranged from small Caribbean  island nation all the way to Mexico  and India ,where public investigation sof the company’s activity are still underway. With demand for behavioral modelling in local politics on the rise and the techniques associated with psychological warfare available, the societies should be well aware of the immediate and secondary that is long lasting effects caused by the deployment of weaponized information, as local political arenas might begin to resemble battlefields where opponents wont’s shy away from waging cultural and information warfare against their respective targets and constituencies while imposing all negative costs associated upon their whole societies.

References:

  1. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan, 2011.
  2. Sunstein, Cass R. On rumors: How falsehoods spread, why we believe them, and what can be done. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Dr. Kiril Avramov is a post-doctoral research fellow of the Intelligence Studies Project (ISP) at the University of Texas at Austin. Srimal Fernando is a Global Editor for Diplomatic Society of South Africa and an International Affairs Research Scholar at Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA) India.

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