That's the premise behind "Disinformation" - with award-winning Evergreen host Paul Brandus. Get ready for amazing stories - war, espionage, corruption, elections, and assorted trickery showing how false information is turning our world inside out - and what we can do about it. A co-production of Evergreen and Emergent Risk International.
Disinformation — like reports of a White House bomb blast — can move billions of dollars on Wall Street. Or it can snarl your morning commute. And don’t think you’re immune to such trickery. Featuring Meredith Wilson, CEO of Emergent Risk International, Jimmy Peng, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the National University of Singapore, and Jorie Craig, Head of Digital Integrity for the Institute of Strategic Dialogue.
It was a decade ago, April 23rd, 2013. I was sitting in the White House briefing room, it's about a one-minute walk to the Oval Office, the West Wing is a pretty small place.
Anyway, I'm sitting there, and a tweet pops up from the Associated Press, the trusted global news agency, and in capital letters it said, “Breaking two explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured.”
Now, I knew this was not true, the president was just down the hall, but the world did not know. And in the four long minutes that the tweet remained, Wall Street with its habit of reacting in a heartbeat to bad news went into a tailspin.
Clearly, another example here now in this hyper fast media age of how things can get out of control pretty quickly.
That CNBC's Eamon Javers that took this exchange at the White House briefing that day for the record to be set straight. Here's Press Secretary Jay Carney, taking the first question from the APs, Julie Pace.
Afternoon, thanks for being here. I have no announcements, so I will take your questions, Julie.
Thanks Jay. I just want to say at the top that it appears as though AP’s Twitter account has been hacked. So, anything that was just sent out about any incident at the White House is obviously false, and may be point something out of today, shortly to clarify that, if that hasn't happened already.
Good, I thank you for that, I appreciate that, and I can say the president is fine, I was just with him.
Imagine that, someone using Twitter to plant a fake tweet, the result of which was to manipulate the stock market. A prime example and in this episode, we'll show others of the dangers of disinformation.
I'm Paul Brandus, and welcome to this series, it's called simply, Disinformation.
And I'm Meredith Wilson, Founder and CEO of Emergent Risk International, and I'll be providing analysis throughout each episode.
When it comes to the manufacturing and dissemination of disinformation, we often think of it within the context of politics. Politicians, disreputable pundits, normal citizens making things up, flat out lying about an issue or arrival.
In fact, disinformation can pop up anywhere and impact seemingly, any realm of our society. In some cases, it occurs when there's a buck to be made, like that decade old tweet about a non-existent White House bombing.
In that one instance, the bad guys theoretically, could have made money by shorting the market ahead of time, and or by buying after the so-called flash crash, a term for a sudden steep sell off. One question now, a decade later, how likely is this sort of thing to happen again, some kind of market manipulating event?
So, I think there is a two-part answer here. It definitely can happen, it definitely does happen.
Meredith Wilson of Emergent Risk International.
It is less likely, I think now, for a misinformed news article or a viral tweet to necessarily have a massive impact on markets just day-to-day in just a normal day like today. First of all, it has to go viral, which that alone is a formula that only so many people have managed to hack. So, there's that barrier first.
The second thing is that the markets themselves, the people that are making trades and things that are a lot more aware of disinformation now than they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago. And they are less likely, I think, in general for even big things like … real things like when the Iranians dropped a couple bombs on a Saudi refinery.
Five years prior, that would've sent the price of oil through the roof, and in that case it really didn't. And so, I think markets in general are a little bit less reactive now.
However, Wilson adds that in a time of uncertainty and turmoil, conditions may be more conducive to false narratives, to disinformation.
I think the time when it's most likely to happen is when there's already chaos. So, if we are in a situation where, say, a bank just goes belly up like Lehman Brothers did, something like that. Then a faked video or faked audio of some other CEO — imagine if J.P. Morgan CEO came out and said, “The bank's just gone belly up, and something massive happened.”
If that happened on the tail end of somebody else, something else already happening, then I could see that moving markets. I could see the reaction before people realized that it was a deep fake, or before people realized that it was a fake audio. But I think it has to be in a very specific circumstance.
Speaking of banks, Wilson and I had this conversation before the banking crisis that began with the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, an influential institution linked to numerous technology firms; its collapse, the second biggest bank failure in American history.
Who incidentally just days later, a much bigger bank, Credit Suisse, the 170-year-old Swiss giant with some 1.4 trillion under management also collapsed.
The failure of the two banks, one in California, one in Switzerland were unrelated, but the timing sent share prices of other banks plunging, sparking fear and uncertainty on both sides of the Atlantic about whether another global financial crisis was dawning.
It's exactly the kind of situation Wilson warned about, with lots of uncertainty and events happening in rapid fire succession. In other words, a breeding ground for potential disinformation.
And that's exactly what happened, in fact, with false narratives popping up about how your tax dollars would be used to bail out Silicon Valley Bank. That claim is not true. Again, not true, a point made by President Biden.
No losses will be borne by the taxpayers. Let me repeat that: no losses will be borne by the taxpayers.
Instead, the money will come from the fees that banks pay into the deposit insurance fund. Because of the actions that our regulators already taken, every American should feel confident the deposits will be there if, and when they need them.
The problem though, as we've explained in prior episodes of this series, is that once the lie is already out there, it's out there. No less an authority than the president of the United States can come out and deliver a message of reassurance. But the disinformation has already spread far and wide, more after this short break.
This series on disinformation is a co-production of Evergreen Podcasts and Emergent Risk International, a global risk advisory firm. Emergent Risk International, we build intelligent solutions that find opportunities in a world of risk.
Welcome back, we've discussed how disinformation can disrupt financial markets, it can actually disrupt a lot more than that.
Hey, Jen, good morning to you. Here's the tri-state toll way if you’re heading southbound here towards … oh here, not that bad, northbound just beginning to …
For example, your daily commute like that one in Chicago could be disrupted by disinformation too. Using the Windy City as a test case, researchers at New York University and the National University of Singapore, found that driving patterns and behavior could be manipulated through false information on social media.
One of those researchers is Jimmy Pang, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Singapore.
What we did was basically, when we are driving, we have these nav apps, like Google Maps. And we are driving, we are busy, so we tend to make … more vulnerable snap decisions.
And since we have so much trust in this navigation software, by spreading some information like false information about accidents ahead, take detour, the drivers are more likely to believe that and actually follow through. And this has actually been proven.
In other words, we trust the technology, the traffic app on our phone says that there's been an accident ahead and that we should take an alternative route.
But in Chicago or any city for that matter, there are radio stations and TV stations of course, that also provide traffic reports. So, you can't place disinformation on every platform, but Pang says, that's not the goal.
Yes, I mean, there are TV stations or radio stations that can provide true information, with correct information, but that does not change the game. The game is as you spread false information, you create chaos, you create many different forms of statements that when you are driving, especially when you're occupied, there's not much time to fact check or to believe, to think twice.
All you're doing is you're going to turn to the software or the app or the radio station you listen mostly, and believe that.
So, we are not saying that it is possible for an adversary to take down all the entire city, like all the drivers will believe that. But we can say a good portion of drivers will tend to believe through this chaos of information, diffusion, truth and misleading information at once. So, that, in a way, achieve the goal for someone to disrupt the traffics.
In other words, disinformation can be used to create a little bit of chaos and a little bit of uncertainty in just the right place at just the right time. The goal is to confuse enough people, muddy a situation to some end.
In the fake White House bombing example, I discussed earlier, I didn't believe it, but others did, the stock market's behavior is proof of that.
Now, consider this; the phony White House bombing story that was a decade ago, today, a malicious actor could theoretically combine the vulnerability of social media with fake audio or video.
And here, I'll quote from a synopsis of Pang's study: “Exacerbating this phenomenon are the recent advances in machine learning and the rise of social bots, allowing this disinformation to be delivered to a target audience at an unprecedented scale.”
This is a potential security issue, of course, and consider that in an emergency, say a natural disaster, the possibility for additional disruption could exist. Hard to believe? Well, this episode began with an example of how financial markets can be disrupted.
And in prior episodes, we've explained how disinformation has influenced personal behavior during the pandemic, and how the collapse of the newspaper industry has impacted personal behavior and elections.
And don't think that you are immune from such fakery, by the way — disinformation is so sophisticated today that anyone can be duped.
Jiore Craig is head of Digital Integrity for ISD, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a U.S. and German-based think tank.
I would say that the way disinformation is talked about makes it seem like only some people are susceptible to disinformation, or if you are a certain level of education, you would never fall for disinformation, and that's really not the case. Disinformation is designed to be deceptive to anyone it's trying to reach.
And so, we are seeing that actors use not just disinformation, so intentionally false information or intentionally damaging information — not just disinformation, but tactics also to get all types of people to engage in mistakes.
So, it's not our fault that we're susceptible to being duped, we're only human after all, and we're surrounded by so much content, so much data, so many platforms, truly a modern-day Tower of Babel, that it can be hard to determine what is true and what is not.
If you like this show and this series, I hope you'll go to the Apple or Spotify page or wherever you're listening to this, and give us a review.
And if you have questions, comments, or ideas, or an example of this information that you'd like us to check out, my email is [email protected].
Thanks to Jimmy Pang and Jiore Craig, audio from CNBC, C-Span, and Chicago's WMAQ-TV. Our sound designer and editor, Noah Foutz, audio engineer, Nathan Corson, executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando.
And on behalf of Meredith Wilson of Emergent Risk International, I'm Paul Brandus, thanks so much for listening.