The former head of ASIO has issued a warning about the dangers posed by small groups within society to shift the weight of public opinion by hijacking social media.

David Irvine, chair of Australian Cyber Security Research Centre and former director general of ASIO argued “the internet and social media is now so open that it is subject to manipulation by just about anyone who wants to do it.”

“You can go on to the dark web and buy applications which will enable you to push a whole body of opinion or the weight of public information in this direction or that direction,” Irvine said yesterday during a presentation at an event hosted by cyber security company Covata.

State sponsored manipulation of social media erupted in the aftermath of the 2016 US election after it was revealed Russians used platforms like Facebook and Twitter to meddle in the presidential campaign.

Irvine noted that state sponsored manipulation on social media is ”simply a new vector for what countries have always done to each other for many, many years — using covert means to influence opinions.”

The bigger problem, Irvine argued, is the noise created by small groups which is “rushing our politicians into making decisions” that they might not have made if they took a step back from the digital debate.

“Quite small groups in a society can now use the power of social media to influence public opinion in one way or another to create an impression of urgency or criticality, leapfrogging over rational debate,” he said.

“This has always been around in some form or another. Social media has simply accentuated the difficulty that decision makers now have because you have a difficulty with working out what is relevant to the argument and what is right and what is proper as a result of what’s happening on social media.”

Irvine believes that it will take some time before we become more attuned to “small groups turning up the volume” and the issue requires cooperation between regulators and the social media companies.

“The American example suggests that the social media companies need to examine what is happening on their systems, assisted by government,” Irvine told Which-50.

The phenomenon isn’t just restricted to social media. A Stanford study released this week examines how automated campaigns obscured the public feedback process as the FCC deliberated on repealing Net Neutrality protections in the US.

Ahead of a vote on the issue, the FCC received 22 million comments, “unfortunately millions of these were fake, including ones that were deliberately filed using other people’s email addresses including senators, journalists and dead people,” the authors wrote.

Dealing with domestic actors

Last week, in the midst of the US mid-term election campaign, Facebook disclosed it had removed 559 pages and 251 accounts for spreading misinformation and spam. Most of it from domestic actors, according to Bloomberg.

In a blog post Facebook explained how spammers attempt to game its News Feed algorithm by creating fake accounts and pages which post clickbait to drive people to their own websites.

“They often use their fake accounts to generate fake likes and shares. This artificially inflates engagement for their inauthentic pages and the posts they share, misleading people about their popularity and improving their ranking in News Feed,” the company wrote.

Unlike foreign actors which are attempting to sow discord, the motivation for this kind of behaviour was mostly financial. Facebook noted that inflammatory political content is increasingly being used as fodder for growing and monetising audiences.

“Topics like natural disasters or celebrity gossip have been popular ways to generate clickbait. But today, these networks increasingly use sensational political content – regardless of its political slant – to build an audience and drive traffic to their websites, earning money for every visitor to the site.”

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