by John Nicholas

You may find it hard to believe, but for the first decade or so of the service we all call the internet, it was considered a place for conspiracy theorists. If you uttered the phrase “I read it on the internet,” you would have been immediately ridiculed. 

I have been on the internet since the early 1990s. During that time, legitimate businesses and news sources joined the revolution, giving the internet credibility. But the conspiracy theorists never left. They just multiplied and got better at what they do.

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Today, conspiracy theories, misinformation, comments and memes can be used for purposes of cyberwarfare. This comes in many forms, such as: 

  • Phishing — emails and phone calls designed to trick you into giving away personal information;
  • Memes — image files, the kind you could make in Photoshop, that usually contain pictures and text communicating some idea or information; and
  • Comments on social media posts, which may be written by bots — software robots looking for patterns using machine learning and artificial intelligence.

These robots looking for patterns are why, when you look at the cost of a new guitar, you keep getting ads for guitars. The same technology is used by nation-states, cyberterrorist organizations and political groups to create posts and memes on social media designed to evoke emotional responses. These adversaries understand the complexities of human behavior and use it to their advantage to spread misinformation.  

Social engineering is the art of exploiting human psychology to change or take advantage of your behavior — for instance, by playing to your base fears and biases to cause a reaction. Many of the memes that sow the seeds of discourse and many of the comments on those posts are designed, deliberately, to keep us fighting amongst ourselves. 

To make things worse, these actors use automated bots to create fake accounts and spread disinformation. That means many of the memes and comments we see on social media were shared by bots. These bot accounts simply look for conversations that match a pattern and post comments designed to keep us arguing. It is nearly impossible to tell the difference between a meme or comment created by a real person expressing an opinion and one resulting from a bot (or a foreign or fringe provocateur). 

Everyone on social media right now should be aware of this. Now that you are, avoid amplifying misinformation. Here is a list of some of the best practices I have developed for myself. 

  1. If you cannot trace a “news” story back to either the Associated Press or Reuters, be suspicious of it. If a “news” story appears in several posts, but they all reference the same article from the same website, it is likely being spread by a bot and is likely not true. If a story does not have a date, be suspicious of it, as misinformation-spreaders often re-publish old stories to ignite anger anew.
  2. Do not share or respond to anything instantly, especially if it is from someone who you do not know personally. Take a minute or an hour or a day to let the instant emotional response pass before you respond to a post.
  3. Research new friend requests before you accept them. They may have several friends in common, but they probably did not verify the friend either.
  4. Research the meme if you can. If you cannot verify the source of the information it’s sharing, do not share it.
  5. Do not share posts created by people you don’t know or pages you don’t follow.
  6. Do not respond to hate-filled comments, and delete them if you can. Hate begets hate.

The biggest cyber-threat there is right now is the use of social media by foreign actors and fringe groups to spread misinformation and sow discord as a kind of cyberwarfare. All of the technical tips I provide you cannot protect you if you fall for an internet con and let the adversaries in.

Dr. John B. Nicholas is a Professor of Computer Information Systems and Co-Founder of the Cybersecurity Degree Track at The University of Akron. Dr. Nicholas has over 30 years experience in the technology field in both the private sector and higher education. If you have questions or ideas, email him at jbnicholasphd@gmail.com.

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