Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has declared cyber security the new frontier of warfare but it might well be argued it is already an old weapon. The carriages and technology are certainly ever evolving and unprecedented in their reach but the fundamental objectives of misinformation, manipulation and distortion of data are very old forms of warfare. But Mr Turnbull is to be commended in the seriousness of the approach and an appeal for a non-partisan approach to the problem. In the age of the information super-highway, even for nations the detours and roadblocks are many and dangerous.
The latest rude shock from the United States' leading intelligence agencies found Russia had hacked into the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee as well as fears Russia used state-funded trolls to influence political opinion and the outcome of the US election.
But in the latest week of almost surreal declarations from the United Sates such as "alternative facts" the dangers of the "post-truth" era from manipulation of information may be a lot closer than we think. If we rely on social media uncritically as a key source of information then the threat becomes even more acute. Moreover the source of misinformation may not be as exotic or malign as a foreign hegemony and could be as simple as local political ambition, blustering keyboard prejudice or just contagious, unsubstantiated gossip. The result is the same; without critical distinction of source the truth is lost. The outcome of filter bubbles is well documented. The manipulation of twitter with robot created tweets is already an old device to hijack public conversation and has plagued events from Brexit to the Arab spring.
Professor Katina Michael from the University of Wollongong argues that now rife disinformation undermines our individual position in a democratic society;
"The deliberate act of spreading falsehoods by using the internet, and more specifically social media, to make people believe something that is not true is certainly a form of propaganda. It is a denial of citizen service that attacks fundamental human rights. It preys on the premise that most citizens in society are like sheep, a game of "follow the leader" ensues, making a mockery of the "right to know". We are using faulty data to come to phoney conclusions, to cast our votes and decide our futures."
Citation: Staff, January 25, 2017, "We owe it to ourselves to ask a lot more questions", Ballarat Courier, p. 19.