The Fake News Atom Bomb

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.

During the past year, 58% of all cyberattacks observed by Microsoft from nation-states have come from Russia. And attacks from Russian nation-state actors are increasingly effective, jumping from a 21% successful compromise rate last year to a 32% rate this year. Russian nation-state actors are increasingly targeting government agencies for intelligence gathering, which jumped from 3% of their targets a year ago to 53% – largely agencies involved in foreign policy, national security or defense. The top three countries targeted by Russian nation-state actors were the United States, Ukraine and the UK. These are just a few of the insights in the second annual Microsoft Digital Defense Report. Read additional highlights from the Microsoft on the Issues blog and find the full report here.

If you had to guess which current world leader has made the most trips to Africa, who would you say? China's Xi Jinping? Nope, hardly — he's been there just four times. France's Emmanuel Macron? Pas de tout.

The answer may surprise you: it's Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who's been to the continent more times than the leader(s) of any other non-African state. Just this week he notched his 28th visit, with stops in Angola, Nigeria, and Togo. Sure, being in power for two decades creates a lot of opportunities for exotic travel, but even Putin isn't close: he's been to Africa just five times, all to visit South Africa or Egypt.

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Former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi was killed by rebels on 20 October, 2011, after a NATO intervention designed to protect civilians helped strengthen an uprising against his regime. Since then, the country has been mired in chaos as different factions have battled for control, resulting in extensive destruction and human causalities. Libya has been nominally governed since 2014 by warring administrations backed by foreign powers in the west and east of the country. Last year, UN mediation efforts finally began to gain traction with an agreement on a cease-fire and a roadmap for elections to be held later this year. We talked with Eurasia Group expert Ahmed Morsy to find out how things are going.

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China's GDP grew a lower-than-expected 4.9 percent year-on-year in the third quarter of 2021, a whopping three percentage points less than in the previous period. It's a big deal for the world's second-largest economy, the only major one that expanded throughout the pandemic — and now at risk of missing its growth target of 6 percent for the entire year.

Normally, such a drastic slowdown would have put the ruling Communist Party in a tizzy. But this time, Xi Jinping knows this is the price he must pay for his big plans to curb rising inequality and boost the middle class at the expense of the CCP's traditional economic mantra: high growth above all else.

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6,000: Poland has doubled the number of troops guarding its border with Belarus to almost 6,000 because of a surge in migrants trying to cross over (there were 612 attempts on Monday alone). Warsaw accuses Minsk of sending non-EU migrants into Poland as payback for EU sanctions against Belarus.

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Religious tension rising in Bangladesh: Clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Bangladesh have surged over the past week, leaving at least four people dead. After an image was posted on Facebook showing the Quran at the feet of a statue at a Hindu temple, Muslims burned Hindu-owned homes and attacked their holy sites. Both sides have taken to the street in protest, with Hindus saying that they have been prevented from celebrating Durga Puja, the largest Hindu festival in the country. Such acts of sectarian violence are not uncommon in Bangladesh, a majority-Muslim country where Hindus account for nine percent of the population. Indeed, as Eurasia Group's Kevin Allison recently warned, unverified social media content stoking inter-ethnic conflict is a massive problem throughout South Asia, where for many people Facebook is synonymous with the internet.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Read Ian Bremmer's wide-ranging essay in Foreign Affairs that puts in perspective both the challenge, and the opportunity, that comes from the unprecedented power of Big Tech.

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here on the road, something we haven't done very much recently, but will increasingly as we try to move through COVID. And I want to talk to you about a new article that I just put out in Foreign Affairs that I'm calling "The Technopolar Moment." Not unipolar, not bipolar, not multipolar, technopolar. What the hell does technopolar mean?

It means that increasingly big technology companies are themselves geopolitical actors. So to understand the future of the world, you can't just look at the United States, Europe and China. You need to look at the big tech companies, too.

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China gets away with a lot these days in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere. That's because over the past decade, its economy has experienced explosive growth, making it an indispensable trading partner for almost every country in the world. At the same time, China has been expanding its share of the global economy, and is now set to overtake the US as the world's biggest economic powerhouse in the near term. We take a look at China's annual growth rate and share of the global economy based on GDP over the past decade.

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