Demystifying the techniques of information warfare, finding solutions

New Delhi, July 30 (IANS) There is a global war being waged all around us that most people aren’t aware of — to shape our thoughts.Thus far, through much of human history, societal control was determined by militaristic strength. Individuals and tribes fought to control vital resources and land. In the next part of evolution marked by colonialism and the emergence of mega-corporations, money determined power. In the recent decade, the key to supremacy has shifted again. The power and control individuals, leaders and nations have is now determined by their ability to mould the information environment. How do politicians in today’s world attain power? How do nations become powerful? Why do human beings follow others unquestioningly, even if it is to their own detriment? What factors determine which politicians, nations and organizations will dominate the modern world? In “The Art Of Conjuring Alternate Realities – How Information Warfare Shapes Your World” (HarperCollins) co-authors Shivam Shankar Singh and Anand Venkatanarayanan, both authorities in the fields of data analysis, political consultancy and information technology dive deep into the operation of political parties, cyber criminals, godmen, nation states and intelligence agencies from around the world to give a wide overview of cyber warfare – and also provide solutions. “We’ve all wondered how society has gotten to the point where we no longer debate what’s good or bad, we instead have to debate what’s real. This transformation isn’t a chance occurrence,” says Singh. “The key to power in the modern world is the ability to shape people’s thoughts, and this means that everyone from politicians to nation states is constantly working to influence what facts we come to believe. Sophisticated information warfare techniques are constantly being used by different actors trying to build competing realities around us. This book demystifies those techniques and details just how the war to manipulate our thoughts is being waged,” he adds. On his part, Venkatanarayanan notes that “We live in strange times, where we can’t recognise our own family and friends because they seem to live in a different reality, which we can’t reconcile or understand.” “It is frightening because irreconcilable differences are eventually resolved, not through dialogue and mediation, but in battle fields. This breakdown of harmony is not a natural condition but is created, maintained and funded through a clear thought process, which we have decoded and documented in detail,” he adds. What then are the countermeasures that need to be taken? “One way to ensure that alternative reality techniques don’t affect our information environment and hence shape our thoughts is to apply the techniques that the immune system uses for information consumption: training our algorithms to act like T-cells for rejecting harmful information,” the authors write. Noting that labelling information as “disputed”, “not true”, “government accounts” on social media platforms is one such signal that may help us reject biased information they say this only works “if we trust the labelling in the first place”. “And even when we trust the labelling, a key problem remains — how do we apply our own internal filters to reject labelled content? For instance, not having a label of being certified by a drug authority or a food safety authority is a good sign for us to avoid consuming a food product, but applying the same standard to the labelling of information, for it to not appear on our smartphones, or for it to have less of an impact when it does appear, requires an algorithm or a tool that knows our preferences and can also act independently, like a T-cell,” the authors write. Perhaps a “Cognitive Security Therapist”, an actual person, or, more likely, “a tool created using artificial intelligence, could look at our current information environment and assess the standard of information that we are consuming. Suggestions from such an analysis could then be used to nudge us towards consuming a healthy diet of information instead of being trapped in our misinformation silos. In a way a nutritionist looks at our diet and suggests a balanced dietary regime for a healthy lifestyle, maybe it is time for the prescription of a balanced information environment”. “Since people’s cognisance is shaped largely by the information environment they are put in and grew up with, it is even possible that such systems and nudges would lead to the creation of a better world but helping us all see each other with a bit more empathy and kindness. All that is needed is a little more imagination and awareness, applied as a filter on the daily information we consume. “Whatever the solution might be, the next great battlefield is set, The success of individuals, societies, nations and the world is dependent on our ability to escape the bubbles of alternate realities that conjurors try to trap us in,” the authors conclude. Shivam Shankar Singh is a data analyst, campaign consultant and author of the bestseller, “How to Win an Indian Election” (2019). He started out in politics as a Legislative Assistant to Member of Parliament Fellow and went on to witness the process of conjuring political realities while managing data analytics for some of India’s largest parties. He is a panelist on national television and writes for several news publications on data and politics. He is also a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University, Beijing. Anand Venkatanarayanan is a cyber security and privacy researcher who also dabbles in financial modelling. He has over twenty years of experience in designing and developing system software. He was called as an expert witness before the Supreme Court for the Aadhaar case and has deposed before the Kenyan High court on the country’s Digital Identity project. He writes extensively on cybersecurity and was one of the first to break the story on the hacking of the Kudankulam nuclear reactor. He studies reality creation techniques deployed at population scale. –IANS vm/dpb

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