By Glen Mills
dis·in·for·ma·tion | false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth — Merriam Webster
An article published by Forbes Magazine on July 9, 2019, asked: How Were Social Media Platforms So Unprepared For ‘Fake News’ And Foreign Influence?
The topics of disinformation, fake news and foreign actors using social media against multiple democratic governments, including the United States, has been the subject of headlines since the run up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Questions of how the federal government and large technology corporations allowed attacks to be carried out on our democracy have been asked and the analysis of where things went wrong will continue for many years.
A good argument can be made that if the major social media companies and the federal government had been paying attention to developing patterns and had thought more about the future, we may have been able to better anticipate what was coming and could have prevented some of the harm that came from these attacks.
Can we apply futures research to anticipate if and how this might affect policing? With a better understanding of what might happen and then anticipating what will probably happen, can we be better prepared to steer things toward a better outcome?
The evolution of the tech landscape
We can probably assess the future social media landscape through looking at the history of online social networks and how they developed from CompuServe to Friendster to Myspace to Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.
We have seen an evolution in technologies, accessibility and popularity. Technology allowed these networks to go from simple text posted in forums, to pictures and text, to uploaded video to live video.
More people are able to access these technologies as the price of computers and smartphones have decreased. We have also seen the popularity of social networks rise as more people use these tools to communicate and spread ideas.
Finally, we have seen how malicious actors have found new ways to exploit these tools to spread disinformation.
Applying current trends to future predictions
If we imagine these trends continuing, we can see that more people will likely gain access to the technologies and tools that only large businesses and governments can afford today.
Think of the cost of a mainframe computer of the past to your smartphone today or of the amount of information you can now download freely with a cheap internet connection vs. the slower and more expensive connections of the past.
We have also seen a trend of governments and technology companies struggling to figure out ways to battle misinformation, a situation exacerbated as governments are unable to keep up with technological advancements and regulate harmful acts carried out with newer technologies.
Russian intelligence agencies spent “only” a few million dollars to employ hundreds of workers at “troll farms,” purchase online advertisements and deploy “bot armies” in their attempt to sway the 2016 election. (A bot is basically a computer program that can behave like a person online.) We don’t know if, or exactly how much, these efforts affected the election, but any observer can see that their efforts did cause a great deal of mayhem and confusion.
the Impact of disinformation on policing
Why should we care about this in policing? Because the social media tools and techniques of Russian “non-linear hybrid warfare” are coming to your backyard.
Your smartphone’s technology is equal in power to computers that cost millions of dollars decades ago. Not only that, but the multiple user-friendly apps you have loaded onto your device would have taken teams of developers thousands of hours to create and have required very sophisticated knowledge to even operate in the past. These trends mean that the “troll factory” filled with human employees today will be replaced by sophisticated artificial intelligence programs or bots that will act more convincingly like humans tomorrow.
The bot armies of today (that only cost hundreds of dollars) will cost pennies, be much easier to find and far easier to use by those who have little technical skill.
What will happen when anyone with any type of grievance against any person can easily use all of these tools and techniques? When you add “deep fake” technologies (as discussed in a previous Police Futurists column) and make them attainable and usable by anyone, then social media will become a powerful weapon for domestic abuse, stalking, harassment and blackmail.
By standing up an army of fake but convincing accounts and amplifying messages on social media, individuals could cause civil unrest, disorder and outright panic. What was once a threat by a single person to divulge embarrassing information to a victim’s friends, family and coworkers becomes a highly convincing campaign to have multiple sources permanently discredit someone in all aspects of their lives.
The phoned-in bomb threat of the past becomes hundreds of very convincing real-time reports from students of an active shooter at their school, and the controversial police encounter in another jurisdiction from a few years ago is recycled and spread as something that just happened in your jurisdiction last night.
Police leaders in agencies of all sizes need to plan to detect and respond to these events immediately. If any of these events rises to the level of criminal activity they will obviously be investigated, and they may eventually be prosecuted, but what about the damage done in real time?
We need to recognize the trends and signals because they are clearly telling us what is probably going to happen in the future. We need to be better equipped to handle disinformation from many sources, in real time, all of the time. If your agency is not prepared for this then the headline years from now may read, How Was (Insert Your Agency Here) So Unprepared For (Insert Fake News Story and Resulting Real World Harm)?
About the author
Glen Mills is a lieutenant with the Burlington Massachusetts Police Department currently assigned to the Administrative Division and oversees community services, training, emergency management, information technology and dispatch. He is involved in a number of community outreach programs and manages his department’s social media, website, Citizens Police Academy, workplace safety and crime prevention efforts.
Glen is also the current president of the Massachusetts Association of Crime Analysts, the first vice president of Police Futurists International and an IACA-certified law enforcement analyst.