In January 2017, the Indonesian Ministry of Security made a surprising announcement. It was forming a special cyber agency to battle fake online and digital stories, such as false online claims, which spread like wildfire, of China waging biological warfare against the country using contaminated chilli seeds.
Quite frankly, I’m surprised it is a government leading the charge for a change, and not a commercial organisation. This development is actually an admission, at a national level, of how severe the situation really is.
While Singapore has yet to follow suit, though I suspect we are not too far from a similar situation.
The issue of using fake digital news (and content) to manipulate perceptions is not isolated to just a select few countries. Instead, it has become a global problem.
In the 2016 American presidential elections, Russia was suspected to have a significant role spreading fake news about Clinton. The Russian intent was allegedly to interfere with the election, swing votes, and aid Trump’s path to presidential victory.
According to Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), Malaysia had to cope with online rumors involving MH370 as most can’t tell the difference between what’s real or fake. Even Singapore’s main press, The Straits Times, had their headline of an online article of President Tony Tan maliciously altered to read as follows:
What is scary about spreading fake news online is that it requires no sophisticated technologies to do so.
The barrier to entry is actually much lower than learning to code or hacking. All that is required is a computing terminal, basic internet access, and a whole lot of human creativity.
Battling fake digital content is much like facing a black swan event or an alien invasion. We've never encountered such an enemy, nor are we faintly prepared to do so. Our traditional news channels, which we used to rely on for credible sources of information, are fast deteriorating as significant influence sources and simply can’t help us deal with this new challenge.
The future needs a new (and different) team of heroes to do unconventional battle.
Drawing from several sources of inspiration, especially those involving earthlings battling aliens and supernatural foes, we need to form a league of extraordinary persons. This force will call on the best to withstand malicious organizations that operate much like the villainous Hydra organisation, or whatever comes next.
I'm not going to list the names of persons I have in mind to form this league for Singapore, but bear in mind - they already exist!They are the best in their respective fields, and most are not publicly-known figures. When the need arises, they just need to be "recruited".
So to “protect and safeguard” their identity for now, I’ve just limited to simply describe their key roles instead:
- Boss man - Otherwise known as the "Nick Fury" of the team. This is the key government handler that interfaces the league members with the higher powers-that-be. This person sets the agendas while knowing the needs and requirements of both sides to effectively leverage on each other. No leather coat and eye patch required.
- Operations strategist - Also known as "Steven Rogers" of the team. The brains and team coordinator that delivers operational objectives with the team, this person is often imbued with creative and brilliant tactical strategies to navigate an ever-evolving hostile digital landscape. New approaches applied with old-fashion values. Mental stamina is a must. Quirky suit and shield not required.
- Technologist and visionary - Sometimes known as the “Tony Stark” of the team. This is the visionary that knows how to employ available technologies, and dreams of new ones to tackle challenges. This person constantly challenges the status quo, realising the fullest potential of technologies by building new solutions just because it’s fun and can be done. Need not be an engineer or programmer. Just dares to dream of what can be. Flamboyance optional.
- Intelligence and digital espionage - Fondly referred to as “Natasha Romanov”. The eyes and ears of the operation, this role employs the best digital intelligence capabilities (tools and personnel) to arm the team with an unfair success bias. Making sense of the sea of data and being able to read things like the matrix as though it’s an open book. Lethal acrobatic skills optional.
- Sniper - Every team needs a “Clinton Francis”. The sniper takes care of targets from afar. Sometimes a surgical strike is better than massive collateral damage. Isolating the sources of fake content and cleanly incapacitating the source discreetly. Unless it’s Hydra (where cutting off the head will only cause two to grow in its place), striking the head of such malicious operations will force the body to fall. Need not fire lethal arrows; just virtual ones.
- Muscle - Without a “Bruce Banner” in the team, most can’t last long in battle. There will be times when elegance is but a luxury, and brute force is absolutely necessary. This is the true force of the team. This person is capable of taking immense casualties during a credibility onslaught, but is yet able to wield widespread influence against an intended target as needed. Need not be green or bulky in the physical sense. Brains are required to prevent excessive carnage.
- Mandated One “aka Thor Odinson” - Every super secret team needs a poster boy like “Thor”. This is the frontman of the team who is seen and known by the public. As a spokesperson, he is so respected by everyone that, when he speaks, even detractors listen. Perceived to have the mandate of both gods and men, he guides us through the darkness we face like a lightning bolt. Chiseled features optional, though he must be YouTube or Snapchat-friendly.
The above will form the anchor members for this league. Do you also happen to know someone who sounds eerily familiar to the job descriptions listed above? Perhaps someone who is a good job fit to the descriptions shared?
Then I am just a short social media message away.
The writer is Ryan Lim, founder of QED Consulting.