The Fake News Atom Bomb

In this month's Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the folks who created the famous "Doomsday Clock" to remind us of the continued risk of nuclear war, cyber expert Herbert Lin makes a startling claim: False information threatens the future of humanity.

In brief, Mr. Lin argues that "corruption of the information system" amplifies the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, but he insists that "Cyber-enabled information warfare has also become an existential threat in its own right."

Lin warns of a "global information dystopia, in which the pillars of modern democratic self-government—logic, truth, and reality—are shattered, and anti-Enlightenment values undermine civilization around the world."


What is "corruption of the information system" and "cyber-enabled information warfare?" In the twenty-first century, information flows are the lifeblood of society. But Lin warns that social media are increasingly used to inject false or misleading information into that bloodstream. This new kind of propaganda is in some ways more insidious and harder to detect than traditional propaganda, which is issued via public, and often centralized, media channels.

If large numbers of people regularly consume false information, Lin says, they will lose confidence in the institutions that govern society and the vital information they provide.

What's more, targeted disinformation can make wars more likely; imagine the impact of Facebook and Twitter during the Cuban Missile Crisis. They can also trigger national and international health crises by undermining public confidence in prevention and treatment methods. They can exacerbate the effects of climate change by portraying it as a hoax.

The dark side of information freedom: Not so long ago, we celebrated a new age of global connectivity, fingertip information searches, self-publishing, seemingly infinite sources of information, and the advent of pocket-sized devices with more brainpower than the supercomputers of a generation ago.

But as the report warns, these "increases in the volume and velocity of information have created a louder and more chaotic information environment that stimulates fast, angry, reflexive, intuitive, and visceral thinking, reaction, and action in people and thus displaces more complex, reflective, and rational thought."

We've already seen:

• Ubiquitous use of search engines that return results based mainly on the popularity of the answers rather than their accuracy.

• The "formation of echo chambers and media bubbles that reinforce pre-existing beliefs."

• Large-scale data mining that allows digital-age propagandists to sift vast amounts of personal data to identify and target those most susceptible to specific kinds of "fake news."

• Lightning-fast data transfers, which enable false information to spread more quickly.

• Computer-generated voices and manipulated images that are almost indistinguishable from real ones.

The solution? According to Lin, we need "better ways of identifying adversary cyber-enabled information warfare campaigns in progress; good countermeasures to help human beings resist the use of cyber-enabled information warfare operations targeted against them; and good measures to degrade, disrupt, or expose the adversary's use of cyber-enabled information warfare operations."

The complication: Human beings are not always truth-seekers. As this report acknowledges, all of us are guilty at times of believing what we want to believe, creating demand for false information to meet the supply.

Teaching people to recognize fake news is important. Persuading them that they should try to separate fact from fiction is a different challenge.

Howard University President Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick joins That Made All the Difference podcast to discuss how his career as a surgeon influenced his work as an educator, administrator and champion of underserved communities, and why he believes we may be on the cusp of the next "golden generation."

Listen to the latest podcast now.

It's been a bad week at the office for President Trump. Not only have coronavirus cases in the US been soaring, but The New York Times' bombshell report alleging that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to kill US troops in Afghanistan has continued to make headlines. While details about the extent of the Russian bounty program — and how long it's been going on for — remain murky, President Trump now finds himself in a massive bind on this issue.

Here are three key questions to consider.

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Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of WIRED, discusses technology industry news today:

Do some of the Facebook's best features, like the newsfeed algorithm or groups, make removing hate speech from the platform impossible?

No, they do not. But what they do do is make it a lot easier for hate speech to spread. A fundamental problem with Facebook are the incentives in the newsfeed algorithm and the structure of groups make it harder for Facebook to remove hate speech.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Yes, still in the middle of coronavirus, but thought I'd give you a couple of my thoughts on Russia. Part of the world that I cut my teeth on as a political scientist, way back in the eighties and nineties. And now Putin is a president for life, or at least he gets to be president until 2036, gets another couple of terms. The constitutional amendments that he reluctantly allowed to be voted on across Russia, passed easily, some 76% approval. And so now both in China and in Russia, term limits get left behind all for the good of the people, of course. So that they can have the leaders that they truly deserve. Yes, I'm being a little sarcastic here. It's sad to see. It's sad to see that the Americans won the Cold War in part, not just because we had a stronger economy and a stronger military, but actually because our ideas were better.

Because when those living in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Block looked at the West, and looked at the United States, they saw that our liberties, they saw that our economy, was something that they aspired to and was actually a much better way of giving opportunities to the average citizen, than their own system afforded. And that helped them to rise up against it.

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Jon Lieber, managing director for the United States at Eurasia Group, provides his perspective on US politics:

How likely is bipartisan action against Russia in light of Taliban bounty reports?

I think it's probably unlikely. One of the challenges here is that there's some conflict of the intelligence and anything that touches on the issue of President Trump and Russia is extremely toxic for him. Republicans have so far been tolerant of that and willing to stop any new sanctions coming. I think unless the political situation or the allegations get much worse or more obvious, that stalemate probably remains.

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