Public opinion is in constant flux, always has been. But what is it that moves it? What pushes society in one direction or another? In a perfect world, events happen and we assess the information about them honestly and society presses on. Alas, we’ve never lived in a perfect world and for as long as we’ve been social animals, information has been used as a tool, a weapon. Dating back to the era of Sun Tzu in “The Art of War”, he noted, “all warfare is based on deception”, understanding that manipulation was an essential part of success in any battle.
Fast forward to today, to a world that functions and exists on the information superhighway, a world of hyper-connectivity where information and news travel around the globe in less than a second, touching and affecting the opinions of people en masse. In an instant. Grasping the degree to which this information is weaponized and the dire effects that it can have on society is crucial to combatting it.
Why Is Information Weaponized?
Information is weaponized for largely the same reason people weaponize anything, to win or gain something or shift perception. Broadly speaking, and on the macro level, the goals are to undermine public institutions and disrupt political systems. Given that our systems for just about everything these days have been, or are in the process of becoming, digitalized, it opens ever more avenues for information to be weaponized and for public opinion to turn into a prize to be won by any means necessary. This comes in the form of things like:
In simpler terms, the idea is to manufacture public opinion and create the choices in which people gravitate towards.
Who Weaponizes Information?
This runs the gamut. Technically information can be weaponized by anyone, at any level, to manipulate opinion and push a narrative. Deception is the name of the game and it’s one that anyone can play. Terrorists, hackers, state agents, organized crime and everyone in between, weaponizing information is truly an activity that all take part in, even the “good guys”, whoever they may be to you. We see it in the rhetoric and misinformation campaigns the world over. The public opinion is what’s at stake and to that end, everyone has a dog in the race.
When Is Information Weaponized?
Given that we’re all living in the information age, opportunities for our data to be used against us in the aid of nefarious objectives are rife. An extremely oversimplified example from the last century, all the way back during World War 1, the German sent Lenin back to Russia in the hopes that his message would aid in collapsing the Russian monarchy. Fast forward to today and the most clear and present example that all are familiar with is the continued and sustained attacks on the United States elections.
The perpetrators being so sophisticated it’s nigh impossible to notice we’re in the midst of an information warzone. Ultimately, these days, given the ubiquity of all types of devices that connect us we are in a constant state of information weaponization, it’s an all the time occurrence at this point.
Where Is Information Weaponized?
Where isn’t it being weaponized is a more difficult question because the information is being weaponized at literally every stage and place. Any medium that conveys information is simultaneously a tool for its weaponization. It’s a sad irony and perhaps on a deeper level a flaw in our nature.
This is a tale as old as time, from newspapers to telegram to radio to tv and finally into cyberspace, all means of communication present opportunities and have evolved with the times. The 21st century has been quite the boon for the complexity and ever-presence of these tactics and we see it aggressively in the online universe. These days it’s been rebranded as “fake news”.
What Information Is Weaponized?
Whatever can usefully push a narrative and shift public perception is weaponized. We collectively put out so much data, for free, into the digital world that weaponization of it becomes low-hanging fruit. Social media is the easiest and most obvious example of this where we can observe this happening in real-time. Information of all kinds is being used to shape our opinions on everything and everyone, spinning, twisting and contorting words and actions to fit specific aims.
Aside from our personal preferences being weaponized and used to push us into certain narratives, everything from information about candidates in elections to entire information systems being attacked in Distributed Denial of Service attacks to social media bots is fodder for information warfare.
According to a study in Computers & Security Journal, the effects can be categorized as follows:
Combatting Weaponized Information
This is a problem that will only get worse if it’s not heeded head-on. The increased reach, intricacy and stealth quality to the current nature of information weaponization paints an even more stark picture of the future if not actively pushed back against. There is a drastic need for increased education and vigilance. The major first step that needs to be taken, which we see happening the world over, is the acknowledgment that this is happening and won’t resolve itself.
The goals are destabilization and the manufacture of public opinion that pushes people to choices they may not have made if presented with accurate and honest information. Identification is key in any effort to neutralize the effects that weaponized information has and becoming more well-versed, analytical and discriminating consumers of information is vital for moving into the future confidently.