Smell The Coffee; Infocalypse Has Arrived
On nuclear energy, scientist Albert Einstein prophesised that “The unleashed power of atom has changed everything ,…, and we thus drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.” In 2016, technologist Aviv Ovadya warned of the unfolding of Infocalypse, a dangerous and untrustworthy information ecosystem. That Infocalypse is now staring at India in manifest. The moot point is if it has reached the tipping point where humanity will no longer be able to cope, it will lead to disintegration of the society and the nation. Infocalypse would annihilate democracy.
As physical space abhors vacuum, cognitive space loathes ignorance. Infocalypse is ‘mis-harnessing’ of the law of human nature to corrode the information ecosystem. It arrives on an unfettered flow of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. The obliviousness that causes anxiety is the favoured target of distorted information. The corrosive information seeks to achieve cognitive closure by purported resolution of lack of knowledge.
In Infocalypse, the positive aspect of social media of providing belongingness, the basic human desire, is manipulated to create hardened perceptions through amplification of damaging information. Destructive data produces cynical silos which summarily reject information not coming from ‘trusted’ sources. The veracity of information is examined on whether it is coming from a ‘hardened follower’ or ‘anti National’. It becomes difficult then to have a common perception of reality. This in turn then fuels hyper partisan views to influence political and social behaviour of individuals.
In Infocalypse, awareness of truth would change so that no one is able to reach a sensible conclusion. This would further lead to a dystopia in which all social, political bodies, and institutions of governance would lose their credibility and therefore relevance. The cognitive exploitation through information manipulation can cause implosion unleashing uncontrollable disruptive force that can disintegrate society, politics, and nation.
Declining faith in traditional media that was the fount of trusted information has catalysed Infocalypse. An Oxford University research concluded that poor journalism, political propaganda, and misleading forms of advertisement are leading to a problem of misinformation. It noted that less than half in many countries agreed that they can trust news most of the time. The researchers found that this trust was particularly low in high income democracies, the US (38%), France (30%), and Greece (23%). The perverse information gains currency due to low trust in traditional media coupled with high dependence on social media. Though there is divergence in social media acceptance in various countries, anecdotal evidence suggests that it has significant tolerance in India.
Infocalypse is ideal for meeting the strategic objective of Fifth Generation Warfare (5GW) of using implosion as a defeat mechanism through manipulations in cognitive, political, and social domains. Disinformation, misinformation, and mal-information, all covered erroneously, as fake information are the favoured ammunition of this warfare delivered through social media. 5GW targets body politic rather than the physical (land, air, and sea) domain. Collapse is the desired outcome of warfare, rather than attrition.
The psywar and perception management have been employed for as long as a tactical weapon. Its dynamics included a long gestation period followed by quick fruition. Yuri Bezmenov, a KGB defector, had delineated four stages of Psychological warfare or cognitive manipulation tactics. In the first stage of demoralisation which lasts up to two decades, data is pumped to corrode the information system so that the perception of reality is distorted. It is pursued by destablisation, that aims to create disaffection with the established system and continues for two to five years. The crisis phase creates upheavals in weeks, followed by an indefinite period of normalisation. The infocalypse would follow a similar trend.
Project Lakhta of Russia targeted against the US is a seminal case in cognitive manipulation. In United States of America vs Khusyaynova, the FBI stated that Russian effort had the strategic goal to sow division and discord in the US political system, including by creating social and political polarisation, undermining faith in democratic institutions… It operationalised the strategy through … social media platforms and other Internet-based media. FBI informed that conspirators staged and promoted political rallies inside the US, …, around particular socially divisive issues. The conspirators used social media and other internet platforms to inflame passions on a wide variety of topics… They took advantage of specific events in the US to anchor their themes, including … policy decisions of the US administration. The conspirators were directed to create “political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements.” They also sought, to “effectively aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population.”
While Russia’s forays into cognitive manipulations are documented, China and Iran too have indulged in perception management of targeted audiences. A research by Christina Nemr and William Gangware on state sponsored disinformation campaign against another country mentions: “In September 2018, a four-page advertisement sponsored by the state-owned China Daily ran in the Des Moines Register. The advertisement, mirroring an actual newspaper spread with journalistic articles, included a selection of pieces that touted the benefits of free trade for the US farmers, the economic risks of China-US trade tensions, and President Xi’s long ties with the state of Iowa. Targeting an Iowa audience in the midst of China’s agricultural trade dispute with Trump – and during the midterm campaign season no less – made clear that China would not hesitate to try shaping the US political conversation. The Iranian propaganda efforts have largely focused on promoting particular policy interests that are aligned with the Iranian government. Iranian interests promoted by these (social media) accounts include anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian narratives, as well as condemnations of Iran’s adversary Saudi Arabia.
Backing for farmers’ agitation in India from diverse quarters triggers a queer feeling. The protest was backed by a teen environmental activist (Greta Thunberg), a pop singer (Rihanna), and a person (Mia Khalifa, adult star), acceptance of knowledge of whose identity in front of parents or wife would spark a sense of guilt. Their social media outpourings were meant to instigate different audiences who may not have any inclination for farmers’ cause, to influence a political line.
History is replete with instances where internal weakness has facilitated external onslaught. In the era of attrition as a strategic objective, individuals emerged as saboteurs of internal strength. Vibhishana helped in the fall of Lanka, Prithviraj Chauhan lost because of Jaychand, and the East India company succeeded in gaining a foothold in India due to Mir Zaffar. In 5GW, cognitive, dissonance would be the raison d’etre of collapse of society and politics.
The scary prognosis compels us to question leveraging digital tools and social media networks to spread narratives, distortions, and falsehoods to shape public perceptions and undermine trust in the truth, to achieve political ends. A weakened and corroded information system allows intrusion of an agenda of demoralisation. Short term electoral gains have potential to weaken internal cohesion and strength to counter determined external onslaught.
The Ark to tide over Infocalypse would have to have representative of right attitudes like Noah’s Ark which comprised various species to preserve the planet after the Apocalypse.
The first attitudinal change is required in traditional media which is the flag bearer of conveying truth to the society. It has lost credibility because of the tactical shift of replacing facts with spin, allowing agenda to nudge out data, and adopting instigation as strategy rather than education, to match the growth of social media. The traditional media may make the doctrinal shift from “If it bleeds, it leads.” The doctrine may be a good marketing strategy but has the cataclysmic potential of triggering Infocalypse. To prevent catastrophic possibility, media may take recourse to the saying in vilified Manusmriti,
“Satyam bruyat – priyam bruyat- na bruyat satyam apriyam, priyam cha nanrutam bruyat – esha dharmah sanatanah” (4.138)
(“Speak the truth pleasantly, do not speak truth unpleasantly, never speak pleasant lies, that is eternal righteousness.”)
Unpleasantly spoken truth becomes porn indicating an agenda than education. Drone images of burning pyres, video feeds with mass funeral in the background are examples of unpleasantly told truth. These undermine trust in the media. Families switched off TVs when these images were shown.
The political parties would have to assume the primary responsibility of countering the Infocalypse. Using ammunition to corrode the information ecosystem for narrow electoral gains is devious. Democracy thrives on shared values and political mobilisation to achieve common good. Mobilisation leading to hardened eco chambers are prone to implosions. It is a collective responsibility of political parties. It is futile to embark on a corrective path with a mindset of who-did-it-first. Karna’s riposte to Lord Krishna,
“vritha hai poochna tha dosh kiska, khula pahle garal ka kosh kiska, jahar toh ab sabhi ka khula hai, halahal se halahal dhule raha hai, Jahar ki keech main jab aa gaye hum, kalush ban kar kalush par chha gaye jab, dikhana dosh kya phir anya jan mein, aham se phoolna kya vyarth man mein” (Rashmirathi, Dinkar)
(It is futile to ask who was at fault, whose can of poison was opened first, now everybody has opened his can of poison, poison is being used to wash poison, when we have landed in puddle of poison, when we are overwhelming each other with evil, it is futile to show others the fault and get elated with false ego), should be guiding principle of quest for collective solution. Infocalypse is a national crisis that has to be handled collectively with strong political will.
National security too needs to be redefined. The concept which was hitherto revolving around territorial security, arms for protection, and nuclear holocaust should take into account the feeling of insecurity arising more from worries about daily life than from the dread of a cataclysmic world event (UNDP 1994 report on Human Development).These anxieties or Human Security concerns are susceptible to contamination by spurious information. Human security vulnerabilities can be easily exploited to meet the strategic objective of 5GW.
In Infocalypse, the freedom of expression and privacy would not only seem trite but irrelevant. The weaponised expressions should have no freedom, especially when it impacts collective awareness. Whether there should be freedom of expression that impinges on human security by accentuating anxiety and prompting cognitive closure? Whether Right to free speech can be formulated as, “All persons may speak, write and publish freely, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty” (Art 1, Sec 4, Illinois Constitution)?. These questions should initiate a rethink in jurisprudence.
The Ark may also be equipped with structures and processes to fend Infocalypse. The first and foremost is the Electoral Laws which are not equipped for the digital age. The laws should be made to facilitate legal access to entities responsible for publishing digital information including source of funding. Similar transparency may be introduced for non-election political advertisements and mobilisation material. The definition of political campaigning, and also the duration of campaigning, need a relook.
The Mandate of The National Integration Council that looks for ways to address the problems of communalism, casteism, and regionalism should be expanded to include the issues arising out of a corroded information ecosystem that also impacts the original charter of the council. The composition of the council is bipartisan to allow meaningful discussion.
Only those tech platforms which take responsibility for usage of their platforms should have access to the Ark. Tech companies should refrain from hiding behind the cover of being only a platform. It is known that they have algorithms to monitor content and read profiles. Selling data on the profile of individuals to political parties should attract heavy penalties both for tech companies and beneficiary political parties. The liabilities of tech companies need to be formulated. These companies need not evaluate themselves but be examined by a bipartisan oversight committee to audit algorithms used.
Humanity is at the cusp of technological singularity where Artificial Intelligence (AI) would not only match human intelligence but may exceed it. In this singularity, Deep Fakes would acquire devastating potential more catastrophic than the Hiroshima disaster. It is estimated that the technological singularity would be achieved in less than two decades. Time to act is now, lest we are swept away in a huge surge of AI enabled Infocalypse.