Death by a thousand algorithms

AFTER More than 1,100 years ago, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi developed mathematical formulas that we know today as algorithms, which are now so intertwined with the commercial fortunes of global media giants and the fabric even geopolitics.

A series of recent high profile international reports have revealed pockets of coordinated inauthentic behavior in the social media and cyber domain. While international reports highlight their existence, they refrain from explaining their impact on different populations.

The rise of an even more sophisticated form of activity has emerged – cyber social attacks which bring together a generation of knowledge about cyber incursions, coupled with the latest developments in social media manipulation. These aggressive, malicious and targeted attacks have left crisis response teams in the business and political worlds dizzy.

The Crisis Management Center released a report saying there had been massive levels of manipulation related to food safety concerns in Malaysia over a six-month period earlier this year. More than 40% of the comments generated came from thousands of dishonest or fake social media accounts. The immediate impact was a shift in sentiment towards manipulating discussions on issues related to the poultry industry and food inflation. The ripple effects can be much more sinister.

Ironically, many social listening tools are unable to eliminate noise, creating a scenario where communications and social media teams are working hard to show that they’ve turned the narrative and sentiment upside down but are actually fighting shadows.

Publicly listed companies are partially susceptible to manipulation during a crisis because shareholders, both institutional and retail, have a listening ear and a browsing history will inform the algorithms that a person is interested in a specific counter. In some cases, the impact can be seen within minutes or hours when a stock’s price drops because people sold the stock on “negative” news.

Yet a more dangerous scenario exists where threat actors know the reports will be passed on to policy makers, so they artificially manipulate the social media landscape in a way that causes decision makers to make decisions on a response. “angry” public, but the real beneficiary may be a commercial interest group or a country. This can be expected before the elections.

This has been the fund-raising for many public diplomacy efforts in the region on a variety of key issues impacting both trade and regional security issues. All of this is made possible by the complex algorithms employed by media platforms designed to elicit behaviors that generate profits.

The challenge and the opportunity remain – decision makers grapple with the DNA of media company business models while trying to manage a critical issue and effective communications.

Falsifying information in an adversary’s mind is straight out of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. It has now become more sophisticated. This could explain why many well-intentioned decisions have missed the mark in terms of reading the situation.

“Wagging the Dog” now becomes obsolete if it is not necessary to alter public perception, but simply the perception of an audience as represented in a social media report given to a decision maker.

Thus, we see too many leaders facing “Death by a Thousand Algorithms”, and the impending reality of the next election will be no exception.

Nordin Abdullah, founding president of the Malaysia Global Business Forum. Comments: [email protected]

Sharon D. Cole