On April 23, 2013, I was sitting at my desk watching the stock markets on my screen. I happened to be in a chat room with a number of other traders at that moment. Some were discussing their current Apple trade, others were concentrating on some options, and others just looking for their daily setups for their next trade.
I happened to be looking over at my twitter feed, when suddenly I saw this tweet show up from the Associated Press (This screen grab was taken by somebody else at the time before the twitter account was blocked and the tweet deleted).
My first reaction was to tell the others. “Hey, did you guys see that a bomb just went off at the White House?” Just as the words came out of my mouth, the news began to spread like wild fire as more people became aware of the tweet. At that instance the stock market took an instant nosedive. Everybody started to scour all the other news sources to see if they could verify what we saw.
Just as quickly, the market reversed course and made a recovery. The Associated Press came out and said that the message was the work of a hacked @AP account. The account was immediately suspended by Twitter. Regardless, that tweet of an explosion at the White House was enough to tank the markets as much as 1% in those few seconds. The fact that the “fake” news was coming from a reputable source made the impact all that more powerful. Responsibility for the attack was later claimed by the Syria Electronic Army, a group that is reported to have the tacit support of Bashar al-Assad, although that could not be independently confirmed.
The combination of a connected world, speed of delivery and the sheer volume of information seems to have created a weapon that we have never seen the likes of. At least, not one of this size. This weapon has been used in the past, but it has only been used sparingly and by only a few players at a time. In addition, it was only implemented in certain situations in history.
So what has changed? Well, now this weapon is implemented daily. It is in the hands of many, although some wield more power than others, the small players still have the ability to make use of this weapon in a very efficient manner. The weapon is misinformation.
Why is it so powerful? Each time a reader encounters one of these stories on Facebook, Google, Twitter or really anywhere, it makes a subtle impression. Each time, the story grows more familiar. And that familiarity casts the illusion of truth. The more sensationalized a story, the more it has the ability to spread. A story that casts a wide net attracts a large number of viewers. In today’s connected world, a large audience translates to money.
Although many companies and individuals attempt to “stretch the truth” or outright create “fake news” as a strategy to gain followers there are many other motives to do so. The Government has employed a strategy of misinformation for years as a means of rallying support for their causes. On February 5, 2003, Powell appeared before the UN to prove the urgency to engage a war with Iraq. Powell himself stated later: “I, of course, regret the U.N. speech that I gave,” he said, which became the prominent presentation of their case. In May 2016, Powell said, “At the time I made the speech to the UN, President George W. Bush had already made the decision for military action.”
Donald Trump has been the US President for over one year now, yet that has not stemmed the constant barrage of conspiracy theories around his win concerning potential collusion with the Russians. What it has done though is to present the power of misinformation in forming people’s opinions. Regardless of the fact that the stories we have heard are true or not, the seeds have been sown.
These false ideas that enter our psyche create feelings of doubt and suspicion. This in turn creates anxiety within the masses. The manipulative power of today’s social media tools (see here) coupled with our need to satisfy our addiction for more information, in order to quell these doubts, creates a powerful tool in the form of WMD, words of mass destruction.