Social media - the perfect platform for spreading disinformation

RSA conference hears of ‘ fundamental redesign of how we communicate as people’

When news broke last weekend that 'senior US officials' had travelled to North Korea for discussions about a potential meeting of the two countries' leaders, White House officials denied rumours that the US envoy had been CIA director Mike Pompeo.

Then Trump tweeted.

On Wednesday, among his usual flurry of early tweets, Donald Trump confirmed Pompeo had been in North Korea “last week” (though the White House later corrected this to state he was there over Easter).

ZeroFox chief executive James Foster couldn't have asked for a better illustration for his 8am session at the RSA security conference on Wednesday, presciently entitled Potus has Posted: Social Media and National Security.


Foster said the challenge of our new "cybersphere" is that it is "redrawing lines and borders in a way we haven't seen before", based on network applications and platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

“This is now the new communication norm and I think you’ll see national leaders take one platform or another. You’ll have different leaders leveraging different platforms for communication… And that will look a lot like television.”

Different countries may settle on different platforms, platforms so enormous in their user populations that they are effectively, virtual nation states, he said.

Consider that Twitter has 328 million users, Facebook over 2 billion, Snapchat 255 million, Instagram 700 million, Skype, 300 million and China's Sina Weibo, 333 million.

“This shows the fundamental redesign of how we communicate as people,” he said.

Twitter rant

In the case of the US, the main state platform that has emerged is Twitter, because of Trump’s use of it to make formal statements as well as rant, or, at times, reveal high level information, such as his intent to bomb Syria, or Pompeo’s North Korea trip.

Using a particular platform for default diplomacy or international debate- which in the past might have been radio or television - is, Foster says, “not uncommon. We’ve had US presidents stand up on a platform and declare something, and others stand up and declare back.”

He added: “It used to be scripted speeches for the masses. Now maybe that’s scripted posts for the masses. There’s a dozen countries now at world leader scale, where it’s happening right now.”

And, he added, “Of course war could be declared for the first time on social media. Of course.”

Session co-presenter Kenneth Geers, senior research scientist at Comodo, noted that "tension can be extreme between your online self and your real world self. While we have [those platforms], we still are living in nation states (places that, he said, exhibit sovereignty, a law enforcement jurisdiction and a monopoly on the use of force within a certain defined culture and border area). Now, we have online and real life and we're moving back and forth between the two."

When a national leader is doing this on a public social media stage, though, it can cause confusion and have national security implications.

“Even the [former] secretary of state [Rex Tillerson] was printing out Trump’s tweets to see what the foreign policy was of the day at the White House,” he said, adding that he could guarantee Trump’s early morning tweets about North Korea were being closely examined by policymakers and aides in Washington, DC, as well as around the world.


Because of the heightened importance of these social media platforms, which are often easily hacked, “This is a perfect area for false flagging, deception and information operations.”

Foster said that social media reach was the equivalent of our use of email and text messages combined, a perfect mass platform for spreading disinformation.

“We’re just in the infancy of what this is going to look like five years from now,” he said, noting that the risks are being flagged, if quietly.

“Every social [media] company that has gone public has warned in its SEC filing, every single one, that one of the risks of the business is fake or spooked accounts. Hopefully it becomes more difficult, hopefully the cost of an account will come up, but this is a very powerful tool for spreading fake or real, news.”

The area is moving so fast that we haven’t caught up as a society to decide what social media, officially, is.

“Social media isn’t in any of our current federal regulations. There are no compliance standards. We have mandates on email security, on mobile apps and so on, but not social,” Foster said. “So, the president is online very day making policy decisions and people are still asking, is this policy,? Do we put it in our archives? We are so far behind still.”

The number one breach their companies currently see is “the generic account take-over” similar to the hacktivism of 15 years ago, when a website would be defaced, says Foster. In this case, actors hack a Twitter or Facebook account and claim it, as happened when Isis hacked the US Central Command Twitter account and and rebranded the Twitter page as a “CyberCaliphate.”

Most organisations “haven’t got their arms around this - is [a social media account] personal, is it a corporate asset? Employees think it isn’t really their realm of responsibility,” he said.

Silent breaches

Accounts can also be breached “silently”, said Geers. He gave the example of the Bank of Melbourne Twitter account, which was breached and then sent out direct messages (DMs) to followers with a link to a malware page. Initially, the bank was unaware the message had been sent, but eventually had to issue a public tweet noting that unauthorised DMs had been sent through the account and warn recipients not to click on the links.

Geers also noted the example of Mia Ash, a fake account for a supposed British 30-something photographer with many friends and contacts across Facebook and LinkedIn.

“She had a very healthy online presence”, he said, though if those friends and contacts were examined closely, one group was of photographers and technologists, while the other was businessmen in the Middle East.

"When you analysed the sites, you could see she had a lot of likes but a very suspicious social network." It turned out the account was a fake, believed to have been set up by Iranians to conduct espionage against Middle Eastern targets.

“She will go down as the modern generation trojan horse,” said Foster.

The two warned that when artificial intelligence (AI) is added to what is already available on social media, “it will start to look more real than fake. I don’t think fake news will be a thing in two years, it will just be more information. It will be really hard to discern,” said Foster.

“When audio and video get mixed together, it will be hard to tell (fake or real) media apart,” said Geers. “We’ve seen it in video games - on FIFA you can now drop yourself in as a character. I am sure the three-letter agencies (CIA, FBI, NSA) have better technology than the rest of us to capture video and audio and manipulate it online.”

But reconnaissance on social media doesn’t even require such sophistication. Foster noted that countries might not have to bother sending up expensive satellites to track foreign troop movements when soldiers so often post pictures of themselves online, enabling such movement to be tracked across a Twitter, Instagram or Facebook account.

“Are [states] doing this? I don’t know, but if it can be done, it will be done,” he said.

Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about technology