The era of the Internet has given rise to a freedom of public expression that was previously unprecedented. Previously, newspapers and magazine served as guardians of sorts. They decided what was worth reading about and how the story should be covered. Now, everyone can publish their thoughts and opinions, and anyone with a phone can “report” on the news and events around them. This phenomenon has created an awareness over many critical issues in society that need addressing.
It has downsides, however. In the pre-internet era, news organizations heavily vetted information preferring to rely on multiple verifiable sources and evidence gathering before reporting. While we still see this process in news institutions like CNN, The Washington Post, and other outlets, they’re often times drowned out by the cacophony of analysis and hyperbole that platforms like YouTube, WordPress, Facebook, and websites allow anyone to publish.
If we’re looking at recent events, the Nunes Memo comes to mind as a perfect example. Commentary on this subject was far and wide. From traditional news sources to homebrew commentary websites, the search results for “Nunes Memo” yields over 5 million results despite that it was only a two-week talking point. Prior to the release of the memo, there was an obvious abundance of speculation. CNN, like other mainstream news outlets, interviewed congressional leaders, legal scholars, and past presidential administration members in an effort to create a legal framework and context for this controversial release. In contrast, there is Isaac Green, known as “Anti School,” whose conspiracy theory video on the Nunes memo has almost 50,000 views. His last ten videos – all of the crackpot conspiracy genre – netted over 423,000 views from his over 62,000 subscribers. According to his website, Green has no political background, has studied communications, and “dabbles” in the visual arts. While everyone has a right to their opinions and sharing their analysis, there tends to be a stark difference between the rigorous vetting process an organization like CNN will implement to ensure accuracy versus a single person’s ability to track down sources and verify claims.
These platforms that allow literally anyone to openly publish their thoughts enable a rise in a collective ignorance. People can opt to consume media that lacks verifiable sources. Consider that Russian operatives were able to create several fake news organizations, articles, and social media presences with the expressed purpose of sowing disinformation into the general population during a presidential election. Because we live in our customized “filter bubble” we are collectively suffering a severe case of confirmation bias. People are able to discard overwhelming evidence, such as reports from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, third party Cybersecurity contractors with excellent reputations like CrowdStrike, allied intelligence services like the Dutch AIVD and admissions by leading officials in the US government going on record to declare this happened. Instead, people can instantaneously point to people like Isaac Green and say, “See, he says it’s all a lie.”
The ability to form niche communities of selective outrage has been the cornerstone of this issue. Beyond confirmation bias and the willingness to shun evidence that doesn’t fit their personal narrative, people have been able to find “comfort” in communities that help confirm their bias to a degree that was not possible before the internet created forums accessible at people’s fingertips. The all but dead Flat Earth Society now has a voice in popular media. Meanwhile, anti-vaccination believers find strength with others in forums and Facebook groups that are willing to deny all available scientific data to the contrary.
These issues aren’t always ones that have little trickle effect on other people. The Charlottesville rally that included white nationalists and ended in the tragic death of a young woman was coordinated online prior to the actual rally. Protestors and counter-protestors came from around the nation to descend on Charlottesville and make their political stand. That is not a coincidence. It had been discussed for weeks on forums and Facebook groups on both sides. The Internet was the spark for the white nationalist fuse.
We know that the crowdsourcing of outrage can be addressed and corrected at a national level. Finland is the perfect example of a society inundated with fake news from Russian intelligence operations yet went on to create programs and build a national effort to educate its population in order to combat what would have severely divided their nation. Disinformation will continue to outrage us only if people remain unwilling to acknowledge that it does just that.
Nick is the Chief Security Fanatic of Security Fanatics, CIO, keynote speaker, author & radio show host. He loves all things Cybersecurity. You can follow him on Twitter at @NickAEsp.