The Greatest Cyber Threat for 2023: Mis-, Dis- and Malinformation

4 minute read

On Dec. 12, 2022, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro lost re-election to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva III after months of bitter campaigning from both parties. Even before a ballot was cast, President Bolsonaro started manipulating public opinion by frequently claiming – without evidence – that the election was fraudulent and the electronic voting machines employed were not to be trusted. Because there was no evidence to support his claims, and the intent was clearly to influence people’s opinions (and possibly actions), this was textbook disinformation – false information that is intended to manipulate, cause damage, or guide people, organizations, and countries in the wrong direction.

On Jan. 8, 2023, just seven days after President-elect da Silva III was sworn in, supporters of now former President Bolsonaro took to the streets invading and ransacking Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices. Thousands of people were convinced – largely due to  online disinformation – that their election was rigged and they were victims of a larger injustice. 

Dishonest online content wasn’t limited to one side, though, as evidenced by social media content fraudulently warning that da Silva planned to close down churches if elected and equally untrue content that suggested Bolsonaro had confessed to cannibalism and pedophilia.

Social media, the catalyst of MDM growth

The exponential growth of misinformation (false information that is not intended to cause harm), disinformation, and malinformation (information rooted in truth but is meant to cause harm) – or MDM – largely amplified by social media – has proven to be a significant threat to governments around the world. For example, in early 2021 the Pew Research Center published their findings that two-in-ten U.S. adults got most of their political news on social media, where “facts” go widely unchecked and posts containing falsehoods are 70% more likely to be shared than truthful posts. This dependence on fast and abundant – but often unsubstantiated – content as “news” is why I see MDM as the greatest cyber threat for 2023 (and beyond). If truth and facts become subjective, and people increasingly entrench themselves in the content that best aligns with their biases instead of objective reality, we will likely see bad actors continue to take advantage of that trend to further their own interests. This could range from the mundane (such as guerilla marketing campaigns that malign competitors) to existential threats (such as toppling democracies or fueling civil and international wars). 

The impact on politics

In 2019, the team at ZeroFox predicted that, “Governments may have difficulty fighting against disinformation, especially with the involvement of local actors, which can present legal restrictions and accusations of free speech suppression. This means private organizations, research organizations, and social media networks need to be involved and coordinated to assist in ensuring voters have the correct and necessary details to make informed decisions.” As we all know now, MDM is running rampant on social networks. Even before Elon Musk took over Twitter, social networks were struggling to keep up with the vast amount of falsehoods being shared. Yet, in the months since Elon took over Twitter, extremist political figures from around the world have had their accounts reinstated, and competitor Meta has been unable to counter disinformation from political candidates. In fact, Brazilian users of Meta’s WhatsApp, as well as Telegram and TikTok, saw a surge in calls to attend a “war cry party” in the capital in the run-up to the violence in Brazil, according to the Washington Post. 

The digital playbook of politicians using MDM works, as demonstrated by the events in Brazil…and this is not a unique case. We have seen evidence of MDM leading to the invalidation of election results in the minds of voters in local, state and national elections far from Brazil, including the most recent case of a losing politician in New Mexico who allegedly paid four men to shoot into the homes of four elected officials from the opposing political party. 

Safeguarding yourself from MDM

So, how can we better protect ourselves from this tidal wave of MDM? 

This year, the coronation of a new king in the United Kingdom, elections in Thailand, and the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, are all likely to be targets of MDM campaigns. Social media companies must be prepared and proactive. But, beyond that, “we the people” must be more responsible participants online, including spending time fact checking what we see on social media by comparing that content with peer-reviewed articles and unbiased journalism, and accepting truths that conflict with our personal desires and biases.

If the status quo is not changed, MDM will continue to infiltrate and poison our society and will likely be remembered by history as one of – if not THE – most dangerous cybersecurity threats of our time. That, of course, assumes the truth will be reported in that version of the future.

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