21st Century War Propaganda: How Emerging Tech Can Help Temper the Digital War Machine
October 24, 2023
War propaganda is nothing new. At the height of the Roman empire, Julius Caesar provided readers back at home with detailed descriptions of the barbaric Germanic tribes they encountered as a way to bolster his own image. During WW2, the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” poster was used in the United States to incentivize women to join the workforce to help deal with labor shortages.
Two weeks ago, Hamas attacked Israel via a slew of rockets sent from the Gaza strip, and Israel declared war in response. Since then, a deluge of distressing images have been proliferating online. Disinformation and deepfakes have increasingly become an issue, as evidenced by viral fake content, used as propaganda in the fight for the world’s attention. The Internet has always been a double-edged sword. Greater and instant connectivity, but at a cost. A lot of harm can be done when personal information gets into the wrong hands, or when bad actors weaponize it to cyberbully victims or broadcast fake news on social platforms.
I believe we are at an important inflection point for how technology is used to create a better, more peaceful world. Why do I say this now, when the Middle East is seemingly imploding? Well, we have more technology available and more available data, than ever before.
Last week, the Middle East went further into turmoil as reports surfaced that Israel bombed a hospital in Gaza. As that narrative spread on the Internet with harrowing images coming from the site, thousands of protestors mobilized from Tunisia to Jordan, with Arab leaders canceling a summit with President Biden within hours. Since then, Israel has denied it was responsible, and released information that blamed a Palestinian faction for a misfire that caused the damage. In the initial hours after the incident, rapidly proliferating information (without proof) ignited more tension and put millions more people at risk. We have certainly seen a rise in disinformation over time, with the 2016 election being a case study with its microtargeted ads. However, the speed at which information over the last two weeks spread, at a time when so much of the world’s attention is focused on this region, is unparalleled.
Artificial intelligence plays a role in several ways. As we saw during recent election cycles, AI can be used to target susceptible groups and people via ad campaigns. Those people then have tools at their disposal which they leverage through social media to spread those messages. One of the reasons I was excited about AI when I started my venture career 25 years ago was the potential for people to save time by having highly relevant and useful recommendations sent to them – whether it be for a purchase, or related to education, entertainment, healthcare or finance. Unfortunately, while we have Netflix and Amazon recommendations and a plethora of ad retargeting, few people question what they are consuming as it relates to media, and they are repeatedly exposed to what is targeted to them based on their previous behaviors, thereby creating a vicious reinforcement loop. We can’t easily verify the authenticity of the media, and there are more and more tools available that allow images to tampered with. No doubt this has been a reason we live in an increasingly polarized world – theoretically, the amount of information at our fingertips should make us more likely to read and analyze different points of view, and be more empathetic, but the opposite has happened.
Does this mean we are all doomed? Not at all. Here are a few ways we can use technology to counteract some of these issues.
One way to prove image authenticity is to watermark images, but this is challenging on an individual basis. Every minute, 66,000 images are uploaded onto Instagram alone, rendering it practically impossible for the average person to tell if an image has been doctored or if it is from a previous event. Computer vision technologies can take apart an image or video pixel by pixel and analyze it – and more processing power, along with software, can lead to this analysis happening in real time. AI can leverage and scale this process. Being able to verify image authenticity quickly will prove to be incredibly helpful in stopping the spread of misinformation.
Another way emerging technology can abate the spread of misinformation is by leveraging a trusted ledger of content that can’t be tampered with. While responsible AI can reimagine how the world engages with information, responsible blockchain technology will give people (individuals as well as enterprises) the ability to control their own data and own their content in a way that can’t be tampered with. For more on this, you can reference this article in which I write of how ledgers can allow us to store our data in our own “vaults”, and then allow us to permission that data. Not only can each individual contribute to this ledger, but the correct crypto-economics can provide the needed economic incentives for that ledger of verified information to be continuously added to, and permissioned out. Figuring out the right incentive systems to enable good actors and quickly flush out bad actors is key – again, an area where the combination of AI/predictive analytics and blockchain will play an important role.
All of this wouldn’t be possible without advances we’ve already seen in processing power and through the distribution of existing information via trusted “nodes” of data. I previously wrote about how edge computing can make us more resilient in a crisis, and I believe this is more true now than ever before.
The current war in the Middle East is making it clear how important these technologies can be. Technology by definition is neutral, which is why human(e) involvement in the creation and ongoing guidance of technological advances is essential. I believe we are at a key juncture in this evolution, and that our very survival will depend on us successfully counteracting the negative consequences that have been unleashed with innovation. These need to be credibly replaced with trusted alternatives.
Fortunately, we have brilliant minds that continue to shape these technologies that have the potential to create a system with safer, positive externalities for all, by capitalizing off shared incentives (pun intended). I look forward to seeing continued research, and investing in entrepreneurs innovating at the intersection of these platform technologies. Please reach out if you are building in this space!