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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

In the internet age, fake news is a new form of war

False data that targets airlines, or oil companies, or other important industries, could have a significant impact on the economies of the GCC and wider region

A graphic from Cambridge Analytica's Twitter page. Following is data misuse scandal, the UK firm is closing its doors. Mark Lennihan/AP
A graphic from Cambridge Analytica's Twitter page. Following is data misuse scandal, the UK firm is closing its doors. Mark Lennihan/AP

Data and the right to privacy has become one of the most pressing issues in the tech world today.

The rise of social media and advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning initially promised a more open and advanced world. But with the fake news, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandals, as well as numerous huge data breaches globally, a darker side to tech has been unleashed.

Fake news proved to be an effective tool to sway public opinion and tarnished the media sector. Millions of people were manipulated, targeted specifically to help spread a particular message, propaganda or even lie.

“Fake news is a strategy of war,” Jessica Barker, a cyber security consultant who believes fake news will attack corporates next, tells The National. “The reason is because it’s effective. Some organisations will engage in activity to discredit their competitors. It will be a form to influence reputation and trust that consumers have.”

In a part of the world where public-private partnerships are prominent, fake news that targets airlines, or oil companies, or other important industries, could have a significant impact on the economies of the GCC and wider region.

“The internet is quite new, we are in the early days of this,” says Ms Barker.

Almost every aspect of daily life includes or is conducted on smartphones, laptops and/or the internet. The data you produce in your day to day life, from the method of transport you use or the number of times you vaccum your apartment in a week to the posts you click and like on the internet, can all be collated and mined to create a profile.

This profile, which can determine your age, gender, employment history as well as sexual orientation and religious views, can be used to either sell you products or, as was the case with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, manipulate unsuspecting users with political propaganda and fake news stories to try to convince them to vote a certain way.

For many, “I have nothing to hide” was a common retort to data privacy concerns but now people are realising that regardless of whether you have something or nothing to hide, your data is a valuable commodity that can be used in ways that once only seemed possible in a dystopian sci-fi film.

Traditionally, such vast datasets were collected and held by intelligence agencies and the state but it now seems that the likes of Google and Facebook have even more robust data profiles on individuals.

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Read more:

How fake BBC news is being used to manipulate tension in the Gulf

The fall of Cambridge Analytica speaks to the enduring power of traditional media

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Many pundits have, over the years, claimed that Google knows you better than your own mother. It would seem now that Google knows you better than yourself. AI will one day be able to determine the likelihood of you committing a crime, having children or joining a protest. Japan is set to become one of the first countries in the world to pilot AI to predict locations and potential suspects of new crimes. Forget innocent until proven guilty, this is guilty before the crime has even been committed. It is almost as though the sci-fi move Minority Report is becoming reality.

George Orwell’s novel about "Big Brother" controlling society, 1984, concentrated power in the hands of the state but our future places this power in the hands of a small number of technology companies, in many ways more powerful than governments and, for the most part, unaccountable.

Social media is no longer about connecting people and societies - now the likes of Facebook are shaping societies and even those not on these networks are still impacted.

Mainstream media is active on Facebook and Twitter where propaganda campaigns can be carried out by influencers, automated bots and fake profiles. The narrative that is played out on Twitter is picked up by the mainstream media and so those who have abstained from joining these social networks will still be subjected to the ideas and thoughts that are discussed on them.

The effectiveness of the #metoo international campaign against sexual harassment and assault, was spurred on by Twitter and the online collective plays into the decisions made by governments. While this can be used for positive changes, the rise of populist movements around the world can bolster unsavoury policies such as the Muslim travel ban in the US.

In the end, Ms Barker believes the world will adapt, as it has before, to the new reality.

“Humanity has always had these problems," she says. "There will be a period of social readjustment and there is a need to think about these issues on a psychological level, not just a technical level.”

As the world adjusts, vigilance is perhaps the best approach to adopt.