Cyberwar, but not as we know it.

We were promised things like Stuxnet, or massive DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks. And the hackers and geeks obliged. We remain, rightly, concerned about the developing nature of pure cyberwar.

Yet, it’s not all about the really sophisticated stuff. In fact, this season’s mechanism a la mode is something which allies the basics of cyberwar, hacking, and good old-fashioned journalism, with a sprinkling of social media. We should have seen it coming. The phone-hacking scandal surrounding the News of the World newspaper provided a glimpse, in which phones were hacked. It wasn’t long before the hacking of e-mails would follow. But a subtle difference.

The recent activities of Fancy Bears have shown how simply a society or government can be disturbed through the provision of relatively easily garnered private e-mails to the media and/or distribution through social media.   Elections, as in the United States, a major function of which are to ultimately define the direction of a government and its peoples, have become subject to manipulation by such activities. In terms of Information Operations they are influence activities par excellence. In terms of democracy, good governance and political stability they are extremely worrying. Whereas the likes of Wikileaks, a massive release of private and sensitive information, is like a blunderbuss, we are now into similar mechanisms which can deliver media effect with devastating precision, in time and place. It’s cyberwar but not as we know it.

Aside from the ongoing heated debates over privacy in today’s digital world, the phenomenon raises significant questions for journalists and communicators.

Provided with, selectively chosen, private e-mails within which the content is in the public interest, how should responsible journalists act?   Does the very selection of those e-mails, carried out by entities with a specific agenda, allow or even encourage a skewing of the larger story? To defame a political figure via selectively chosen but also newsworthy private information has become relatively easy and in doing so are the likes of Fancy Bears therefore in perfect control of the news agenda? Is it even propaganda, laden with untruths, when the hacked information is, in fact, true, if private? If such activity can destabilise sophisticated and relatively media-literate democracies like the US, how damaging could they be within less media-savvy, but nevertheless media-saturated, societies? Are populist political movements taking advantage of this state of play to employ the influence ideas of ‘hybrid warfare’ with politics? How does the resulting obfuscation of news and information in this way harm the political process?

These questions, and many, many others, need to be critically examined urgently. Today’s publics are not being particularly well served by politicians and the media and in a post-fact, populism-riven world the scope for manipulation via a hybrid of technology and traditional media is becoming increasingly alarming.   We might not yet have the answers but we surely need to start seriously asking the questions.

Written by our Director of Training and Innovation, Jem Thomas