Depending on their specific goals and motivations, malicious external actors seek to blackmail individuals, organizations or security vendors to disrupt breach defenses or otherwise wreak havoc on IT operations. For security leaders tasked with defending against these threats, it’s hard to know who or what to believe. That challenge has only gotten worse as the spread of false information has become more prevalent.
Data Security in the Disinformation Era
Because of the vastness and anonymity of the internet, individuals can employ a variety of tools and techniques to manipulate the media and spread disinformation. Below are just a few of these methods.
The Social Subculture
Many special interest groups are highly networked, agile and able to assemble on the ground quickly for campaigns as needed. In many cases, participants on one side of an issue work together to gather and disseminate information to support their cause.
These actors are often recruited through online communities such as Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. On Twitter, users commonly collaborate to establish trending hashtags to support their causes and may create vast networks of fake accounts to spread it. Others hijack existing hashtags to prevent members of opposing groups from organizing.
Social bots are automated software that create content on social media sites and interact with people. Bots are commonly used to inflate the number of followers a public figure has, for example. State-sponsored adversaries from around the world use bots to spread propaganda, influence political discourse and collectively aggregate content. Governments and political elites also use bots to attack dissidents or encourage their constituents to manipulate news and support a certain ideology.
A meme is cultural idea or symbol that spreads rapidly over the internet. According to The New York Times, memes are designed to irritate the media, elicit negative reactions from public figures or comment on cultural topics, usually in a humorous way. Users post hundreds of memes on Twitter, Facebook and other social media to see what sticks and what doesn’t.
Memes often contain image macros that are used and shared on social media. These images can serve as propaganda for special interest groups to spread their ideologies or degrade others.
Actors are motivated to spread disinformation to express their views, perpetuate false news, garner support for specific ideologies or otherwise affect public opinion. Then again, some are merely trolls looking to create chaos.
Ideology is one of the most common factors that motivate individuals to disseminate disinformation. These actors transmit one-sided messages to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions and actions of a specified target audience for their own political or commercial purposes. Ideological groups often hold contempt for opposing views. They typically use social media as their primary platform and sometimes even use those channels to spread conspiracy theories.
Another common motivator is money. Actors seeking to maintain their financial interests, for example, might launch advertisements designed to perpetuate inaccurate information about a competing entity. Similarly, some actors distribute false information to garner likes and shares and gain status within online communities. Finally, some actors spread skewed information to radicalize members of online communities — arguably the most dangerous result of this practice.
A Calamitous Vision Realized
In 1979, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping stated that software, if properly weaponized, could be far more destructive than any nuclear arsenal. Given the calamities now unfolding before our eyes, it appears that his vision is becoming reality.
It’s up to security professionals to protect enterprise resources from becoming pawns in disinformation schemes and to make sure they are focusing on the true problems facing their organizations. Business executives, security leaders, IT professionals and media consumers around the world must learn to distinguish legitimate news from inaccurate, agenda-driven indoctrination. In the age of disinformation, this distinction is more critical — and blurrier — than ever.