As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
Three stories illustrate how the “perception deception” is in full swing, on the internet and on the streets.
Controlled Spontaneity: Grassroots Action Just Government Propaganda?
Over the past few weeks, we have looked at recent government responses to terrorism, from New Zealand’s Christchurch Call to Sri Lanka’s moratorium on all social media activity. While these countries – and those that chose to join them in their efforts – sought to censor and suppress online activity to minimize the spread of “hate speech” or inflammatory messages, there is another technique that could be used to control the public in the aftermath of a terrorist attack – and it appears the U.K. government has been using it for some time. London-based news outlet Middle East Eye has released a rather shocking report alleging that the British government has utilized “controlled spontaneity” techniques to conduct social media and media campaigns in the wake of terror attacks and other disasters, in order to stage-manage the public reactions. Such post-disaster “recovery” campaigns include pre-tested social media messages and hashtags, as well as conventional media propaganda and supposedly spontaneous public events – all engineered by the British Home Office.
After the 2017 London Bridge terror attack, for example, a number of hashtags circulated on Twitter, such as #TurnToLove, #For London and #LoveWillWin – were these messages part of a spontaneous and heartfelt outpouring from the public, or part of a government plan? London police allowed a team of men who had emerged from an unmarked van to walk behind a police cordon at the scene of the attacks, and post these same slogans on city streets, despite “fly-posting” such posters being a minor criminal offense. These men did not respond to journalists’ questions about their identities. This was followed by a series of supposedly grassroots events that, it turns out, were public relations operations organized by the government.
One anonymous Home Office employee who claims to have worked on such campaigns said these “mind control” techniques were developed after the government was “absolutely terrified” by riots around the time of the Arab Spring. The source told Middle East Eye:
“The point I noticed change was the  Olympics … The management of the secret, hidden emergency planning work behind the Olympics became the social control that we would fall back on if we had any terrorist attack, or if we had any disruption. It’s ‘this is the hashtag we go to’. And we’ve never come back from those days.
“This job has changed significantly from planning for organic, people responses to tragedy, to being told: ‘We would like the people to do that, how do you get them there?’”
“A lot of the public’s responses are spontaneous, of course. But a lot are shaped. The [British] government doesn’t want spontaneity: it wants controlled spontaneity.”
Ian Cobain, author of the report, explains how it is done:
Two Anti-Trump Social Media Campaigns Busted
Is everything around us manipulated? It seems we are surrounded by illusionists who wish to alter our perception of the world. While Donald Trump may be the most controversial U.S. president in memory, perhaps the outrage against him isn’t as widespread as some would have us believe. Two phony online anti-Trump campaigns have been uncovered on social media, one on Instagram and one on Twitter. Brothers Ed and Brian Krassenstein have been permanently suspended from Twitter, with the microblogging company alleging that they created multiple fake accounts and purchased false interactions in order to undermine the president and his supporters. The brothers deny any wrongdoing. Stay tuned for an in-depth analysis of the story by LN’s Onar Åm.
Italian analytics firm Ghost Data has also discovered a “coordinated social media operation” against Trump on photo-sharing site Instagram. Among the many thousands of anti-Trump users on the site, the researchers claim they found a network of 350 suspicious accounts, including 19 connected profiles that appear to be waging “memetic warfare” on the president.
“We have uncovered a small operation that is very likely part of something bigger,” Andrea Stroppa, head of research at the firm, told Reuters. “I get the feeling that someone out there is experimenting. Testing the waters. They know what they are doing … Their goal seems to be to infiltrate into (social media) networks that are much bigger.”
The accounts appear to have been created with false profiles to spread vitriol, often making identical or similar posts with tags such as #ihatetrump and #ImpeachTrump. “This is a campaign of hate speech not one of reasoned political opposition. The tone is often very vulgar and rude,” said Stroppa. “What we can say is that this digital campaign against Trump uses some of the same methods that were used to attack Clinton in 2016,” he added. Regardless of who the target of the moment is, it seems this is one PR methodology that will be trending online for some time to come.
Instagram and its parent company Facebook have said they are investigating the matter and have already removed some of the offending accounts.
Deepfake Videos and Living Portraits
In February, LN reported on “deepfake” materials – content that is not only false, but that was created by artificial intelligence rather than a human. In what could be either a mildly entertaining or deeply scary development, the Samsung AI lab in Moscow has created a series of “living portraits” in which an AI program used still photos of a person to generate videos, supposedly of that person. Typically, AI requires a huge amount of input to learn a new task, but according to a paper by Samsung researchers, their technology is able to draw on its previous “meta-learning” to generate videos from as little as a single reference image of a particular subject. A companion video to the study shows moving portraits generated from single-frame photos of dead celebrities, including Marilyn Monroe, Salvador Dali, Albert Einstein, and even one-of-a-kind paintings like the Mona Lisa.
It may be amusing to see the Mona Lisa “come to life,” but the implications of such technology are incredible: What political and social messaging could be faked? A population’s perception could be manipulated more than ever before. Photos could be used to create fraudulent video “evidence” against any member of the public. Robert Chesney, a professor of law at the University of Texas, told Wired magazine, “This means bigger problems for ordinary people. Some people might have felt a little insulated by the anonymity of not having much video or photographic evidence online,” but if even one image is enough at the current level of technology, then it seems no one will be immune.
The footage is not currently convincing enough to truly fool a human, but that is ultimately the goal of such research. In the meantime, some lawmakers are exploring the possibility of outlawing malicious deepfakes. Though, of course, such legislation would have its own limitations regarding free speech and the creation of, say, satirical videos.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” has long been the mantra of people who see themselves as skeptics, but what if you can’t trust your own eyes? With attempts to manipulate our perception seemingly all around us, on and offline, it may be time to fine-tune our personal methods of finding the truth. That could involve doing our own research, tracking information to its source, finding reliable and trustworthy outlets, applying our own reasoning and critical thinking to the stories told to us, or following our intuition. With the so-called “perception deception” just warming up, perhaps we all need something genuine thing in our lives to anchor us to reality – what is that for you?
That’s all for this week’s edition of You’re Never Alone. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
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