BY Angelo Fernando

Cyberwar was once considered the hostile action of an adversary attempting to take down a country’s services using computers. Like crashing a financial system or crippling a power grid. Turns out that cyberwar is no longer limited to using ‘code’ to attack infrastructure; the war could also be aimed at us! More specifically, it could involve messing with the minds of citizens.

While expert hackers are always sniffing out ‘security holes’ to plant malicious code in our networks, cyberwar is being waged by those seeking to drill into our minds. The stealth weapon is information. Unlike a missile, malicious information fools our common sense (our radar) and passes through the pipes that make up the internet.

The RAND Corporation puts it this way: “It is not so much that fake news becomes generally believed but rather that after being exposed to so much of this sort of material, which poses as real journalism… no sources are trusted.”

FAKE NEWS At one level, it is information manufactured by spurious actors to create bias – like what happened in the 2016 US presidential election. News stories that were planted and shared on Facebook, Twitter and Google were insidious because this ‘hack’ (if you could call it a hack) tapped into a human weakness where people consume information without checking the source.

Unlike a malicious virus, it bypassed the checks and balances of these social networks, which used filters and algorithms. So at a deeper level, the poisoning of the well of online information – whether though a headline that gets tweeted or selective facts – has made us begin to harbour suspicions about all information and all news.

This distrust seems particularly strong when we run into news from a source we don’t subscribe to.

If the goal of cyberwar was to create distrust in general, the hackers may have succeeded. In a study of trust in the media by YouGov in January last year, 56 percent of respondents said they did not trust the media (38% were more trusting). Likewise, a Pew Research Center study last April found that trust in government was at or near historically low levels across generational lines.

The virus of distrust has entered our bloodstream.

In the US, investigations into Russian activity revealed that small armies of content creators had been involved in spreading news that confused voters. Facebook discovered and shut hundreds of counterfeit accounts tied to a Russian company.

Yes, we’ve watched this movie before!

In the 1980s, a foreign intelligence campaign called ‘Operation INFEKTION’ was employed by the Russians in East Germany with a conspiracy theory about the spread of AIDS. Thomas Boghardt writes that dezinformatsiya – the fake news equivalent of disinformation at that time – was a strategy that used the media to identify, amplify and exploit ambiguities in stories. Our filters are confused or clogged. As RAND points out, today’s ‘fire hose’ of information consumes the bandwidth we need to process such information.

FACEBOOK ADS Consider a sponsored ad like the recreated version of what’s featured here. It is a poorly crafted message in a rectangle that any person with some common sense would not even read let alone pass to others.

Or so you would think. The headline reads: “SATAN: If I win, Clinton wins. JESUS: Not if I can help it.” The picture is a coloured image of the devil’s arm wrestling with Jesus. Below is the line: “PRESS ‘LIKE’ TO HELP JESUS WIN.

But since this bizarre ad appeared within the eco-system of Facebook, which most people would agree is a cocktail of pretentious behaviour and weird rants,  it gets a pass and frames Hillary Clinton in a good versus evil debate.

Such ads are not as easily identified as sponsored content. Advertising after all, is the bread and butter of many of these social channels and there’s nothing wrong with that. But their reliance on algorithms to sniff out spurious ads leaves gaping security holes, and allows users to be targeted with false stories and bias.

Social networks have become the front lines that adversaries watch. Our appetite for information along with 24/7 access to it makes individuals and communities rich targets.

We don’t need to wait for the authorities to uncover the sources of these ‘ads’ to recognise that cyber warfare has outgrown the old definitions. While we may be irritated at foreign culprits, we ought to be equally unhappy with how we as citizens allow ourselves to be manipulated online.

It’s time for a new definition of cyberwar; it’s not simply about attacking hardware but planting the virus of distrust in our minds. The info wars being waged on our media channels are more insidious than we think.

The attackers don’t need to hijack servers or cause a denial of service to succeed. They could simply cause the denial of common sense.